The James Wilson Foundation on Natural Rights and the American Founding

“ ‘Conscience’ and the Law: A Bumpy Ride”– Prof. Hadley Arkes in the Catholic Thing

Writing in the Catholic Thing, Prof. Hadley Arkes expresses the difficulty in offering a principled ground for exempting the religious from certain laws, while others are obliged to face the full force of the law. It begs the question, “what gives our laws meaning?”

Some excerpts:

“The difficulty came in explaining the principled ground for exempting the religious, while others were obliged to face the dangers of military service.  Congressman Gerry of Massachusetts feared that, unless the exemption were connected to membership in a particular sect or church, the exemption could be claimed by nearly everyone.  But if this exemption were given only to members of designated churches, it would mark churches favored by the State – the very thing that would be called in our own day an ‘establishment of religion.’…I raise the matter here because the same problems have perplexed some of the recent arguments about the claims of ‘conscience’ and religious liberty posed against the mandates of Obamacare.”

Hence the problem that has ever remained: If we think that the laws – say, the laws forbidding the killing of the unborn – are grounded in compelling reasons, then those laws could cease to be binding if they run counter to beliefs held by others, say, that those lives in the womb are not really human. Which is to say, the law is no longer binding; it is no longer “law.” And it ceases being law for reasons running even deeper: for an objector may simply deny now that there is any truth, on any matter of consequence, that he is obliged to respect when it runs counter to beliefs of his own, which may not be examined for their truth or falsity.”

“Our friends invoking these days claims of ‘conscience’ against Obamacare have been willing to bar certain acts in the name of ‘public order and safety,’ even if they are animated by ‘religious beliefs.’ But then why not recognize that the ‘conscience’ we respect has a moral content not shared by everything these days that calls itself ‘religion’?”

Read the whole piece here.

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Law and liberty cannot rationally become the objects of our love, unless they first become the objects of our knowledge.
— James Wilson, Lectures on Law, 1790