Conscience, Conscience, Who’s Got Conscience?

“They say freedom of conscience, freedom of religion. I … do not know what conscience is. … I could not figure out the full meaning of the words ‘freedom of conscience.’” This statement expressed the viewpoint of Allahshukyr Pashazada, the head of Caucasus Muslims Office in Azerbaijan at Baku, Azerbaijan on November 14, 2012.

The speaker was attending a conference titled “Freedom of religion and belief: Legal, political and public aspects.” After reading these words, anyone might be entitled to wonder if Mr. Pashazada can legitimately participate in such a conference. Yet this man has held his current position in the government of Azerbaijan since before the fall of the USSR.

Since Mr. Pashazada serves in the government of a nation that is officially secular, one might forgive him for not recognizing the concept of conscience, but his role as head of Muslims makes one ask if he can possibly be serious. Azerbaijan falls at number 25 of the 50 nations with the worst records of religious persecution, making it important to probe a bit deeper into the meaning of Mr. Pashazada’s words. Could his words explain why this nation is on a list of such nations? What might his real meaning be?

These words, “I … do not know what conscience is,” reminds us of a corollary situation in the USA. Recently Tyndale House publishers sued Kathleen Sebelius for exemption from the employer mandate of the Affordable Care Act on grounds of conscience. In the USA, we all think we know what a conscience exemption is. We think it means that government will respect people’s convictions when they say that they cannot obey a law because their religion defines the behavior required by obedience as sin. Quakers, who believe that all violence is sin against God, have been given non-violent work to do in the military, exempted because of conscience, from bearing arms. Most reasonable people thought that the Affordable Care Act would make that same sort of accommodation.

However, the conscience exemption defined in the regulations implementing the ACA limit the conscience exemption to houses of worship that qualify for the IRS 501 ( c ) 3 classification whose business is defined as follows:           (1)   Has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose; (2) primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets; (3) primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets.
See the Federal Register August 3, 2011, 45 CFR Part 147

This definition is extremely tight, and this definition would never have allowed Quakers to be conscientious objectors as individuals during wartime. Many individuals and businesses have considered this definition to be far too narrow, given the protections guaranteed by the First Amendment for the free expression of religion. However, the administration’s response to the suit by Tyndale House was that Tyndale House was not “religious enough” to qualify for a conscience exemption.

Many people would say that the current administration, in the person of Kathleen Sebelius, does not understand what conscience is any better than the head of Caucasus Muslims Office in Azerbaijan, Mr. Allahshukyr Pashazada. Many people would say that in this instance, the USA no more protects religious liberty than one of the fifty worst countries in the world for religious freedom, Azerbaijan.

Interestingly, in Azerbaijan, all religious groups must register, but since January 1, 2010, no church has been allowed to register. They are required to register, but when they submit registration forms, those forms languish in some office somewhere, and the registration never is certified by the government. An attentive reader parsing the language of the regulation for conscience exemption relative to the Affordable Care Act might see in that language the likelihood that in the future, all the churches that wanted to qualify for the exemption would be required to register and be certified before the exemption could be granted. Somehow or other, the government must actually recognize those churches that qualify for exemptions. How better than to simply have a database somewhere where all the churches that meet the legal definition are registered? If that becomes the rule, what happens when the government tires of dealing with it? What happens when churches apply for exemption with all their forms filled out, and the official who must do the certification never actually does it?

Further, Azerbaijan is officially a secular state with no state religion. In theory, the government of Azerbaijan does not prefer one religion over another. In fact, in theory, the government of Azerbaijan is completely neutral with regard to religion, and this stance is the only one that makes real sense of Mr. Pashazada’s statement. Someone who considers religion a mildly comical aberration in the human psyche might very well consider a conscience to be a mythical concept invented for the purpose of avoiding legal obligations. This very attitude permeates the recorded statements of the administration in the court records of three suits filed to date seeking exemption from the employer mandate of the Affordable Care Act. The government appears not to recognize that a Christian is obligated by his faith to live according to the teachings of the faith at work, at home, in a laundromat, in the grocery store, while driving to work, and anywhere else he may be. The tenets of Christian faith do not lose their effect in a person’s life as soon as he exits the church building, yet the government feels justified in saying that nothing religious happens in a for-profit business.

What is conscience but the outworking of faith in the life of an individual? What happens when government tries to compel people to act against conscience, to ignore conscience?

I have found no record of the intentions of the people who founded Azerbaijan, but there is a well-documented record of the intentions of the people who founded the USA. The people who wrote the Constitution of the United States of America never intended for the government to compel anyone to act against conscience. Are we who claim the name of Christ ready to go to jail and/or pay huge fines for our unwillingness to act against our conscience shaped by the teachings of Christ? Will the USA someday be on the list of the worst fifty nations for religious persecution?
Christians purport to believe in prayer. Now is a good time to pray that the US government will be enlightened about the meaning of the First Amendment and cancel the regulations that are currently imposing secular moral values on individuals, businesses and institutions which operate by Christian values. Christians need to pray that they will themselves be very clear about the values they live by and that they will be ready to pay the price for their convictions. In Azerbaijan, people are arrested, fined and imprisoned for their values. Are Christians in the USA ready for the same thing? Are Christians in the USA ready to act and speak and pray with all their hearts for religious liberty for Christians in Azerbaijan and in the USA?

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One thought on “Conscience, Conscience, Who’s Got Conscience?”

  1. Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron; forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. 1 Timothy 4:1-3

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