Tag Archives: Kathleen Sebelius

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?

A Christian Never Engages in Secular Activity


The Affordable Care Act has generated a great deal of discussion among American citizens. The 2000+ pages of this act contain provisions which encourage some citizens and outrage others. One of the more contentious issues is the act’s requirement that employers provide health insurance coverage of specific services at no cost to the covered employee. Jumping past the definition of contraception as a “preventive health service,” many individuals and owners of corporations have resisted the requirement to provide contraception as a component of health insurance coverage. For Catholics, contraception, sterilization and abortion are classified as sins, and no practicing Catholic engages in those behaviors. There are others who reject these behaviors for religious reasons, but the Catholics are a majority among employers who feel that their consciences are compromised by this requirement. They all recognize that the act does not require them to engage in the behaviors, but the act does require the employer to fund the behavior through the payment of insurance premiums. Their life as Christians is compromised when they fund something that is a sin.


The issue with the government arises because Christianity, contrary to a lot of opinion, is a way of life. It is popular to say that Buddhism is not a religion because it is a way of life, but the people who say that accuse Christianity of being nothing but a body of rules acted out in churches. It is exactly this notion that is at issue when employers accuse the government of forcing them to act in opposition to their religion while the government accuses them of trying to say that they are engaged in religious practice while operating a secular business. When Hobby Lobby sued Kathleen Sebelius for a conscience exemption on the basis that underwriting contraceptive services required Hobby Lobby owners, who are Catholic, to act against their religious beliefs, the government responded:


Plaintiffs’ challenge rests largely on the theory that a for-profit, secular corporation established to sell art and craft supplies can claim to exercise religion and thereby avoid the reach of laws designed to regulate commercial activity. This cannot be.


Nor can the owners of a for-profit, secular corporation eliminate the legal separation provided by the corporate form, which the owners have chosen because it benefits them, to impose their personal religious beliefs on the corporate entity’s employees. To hold otherwise would permit for-profit, secular corporations and their owners to become laws unto themselves.


                   Read the government’s entire response here


The government’s response embodies a notion consistently expressed by secular thinkers – when a person is not in a church building engaged in church activities, that person is exclusively engaged in secular activity. Such a separation is not even possible for a Christian. The perception that it might be possible is a sad commentary on Christian testimony for the past two thousand years. If Christians were consistent in word and deed in our witness to our faith, people would know that we are never, not anywhere, not anytime, engaged in secular activity. We are always the agents of the Kingdom of God, breaking into a world where Satan runs rampant, acting to bring people into God’s kingdom. Too many people do not know that this is what Christians really are.


In reality, every Christian is a little sacred space housing the Holy Spirit in his body. No matter where a Christian goes and no matter what he (or she, if you are so gender-knotted that you can’t use the masculine for a generality) is doing, a Christian is engaged in love and service to Christ. It isn’t even about obedience. It is all about relationship. A Christian bears the presence of God into every space. A Christian speaks the message of Christ to every situation. A Christian is always in the center of sacred space performing a sacred mission – gospelizing, disciplizing and baptizing. If secular thinkers don’t see that when they see us, we are failing. The evidence of our failure is a situation like the Hobby Lobby case.


The Bible teaches us that just as the Holy Spirit fell into Christ at his baptism, the Holy Spirit indwells every Christian at the time of baptism. Paul wrote, “Didn’t you realize that your body is a sacred place, the place of the Holy Spirit?” (1 Corinthians 6:19) Christians cannot shed the Holy Spirit or their relationship with him simply by going to work, or by opening a shop, or by paying a bill. The Holy Spirit is present in all these activities. The owners of Hobby Lobby legitimately claim that to perform an act judged to be wicked by the Holy Spirit is an act against conscience. The First Amendment of the Constitution, written by people who knew their Bible, protects conscience, not just for Christians, but for all people of all faiths. It protects the owners of Hobby Lobby from being forced by government to commit an abomination against the Holy Spirit.


To say this is not to assert that every Christian at every moment is acting and speaking as the Holy Spirit directs. We would have no sin to confess if that were so. Christians are not perfect. Nevertheless, when Christians are committed to live their faith, the government must respect that commitment and back off. The First Amendment does not reserve the right to judge whether this Christian “deserves” the protection while that one does not.


In this particular case, the government alleges that not to enforce this act on Hobby Lobby would do harm to Hobby Lobby’s employees. The government response recites all sorts of dire statistics about unintended pregnancy as if pregnancy were an actual disease. The government further alleges that women cannot compete in the workplace as the equals of men if they are subject to unintended pregnancy. In other words, should the court decide that forcing Hobby Lobby to comply with the rule actually is an act against conscience, the government believes that there are compelling health reasons and social justification for this requirement that far outweigh any assault on the conscience of the owners of Hobby Lobby.


How this case will be decided remains to be seen. For Christians, the important thing about this case is not whether Hobby Lobby wins or loses. The important thing is a widespread perception that a Christian can be secular in one place and sacred in another. This is the misconception that makes it so difficult for us to share our faith. If we are not consistently testifying in word and deed that we are little Christs bearing the light of Christ’s love to a dark world, then we are failing in the only task that really matters. The health insurance coverage we pay for is a lot less important than our commitment to tell the world that Christ died for love of all people. We must be vigilant in every word and deed to keep that message clear for all to see. The people who lived in Antioch observed that people who followed Christ were so much like Christ that they called those people “Christians” – little Christs. If we are not being little Christs to everyone we meet, we need to re-examine the way we live and the way we speak. It must never be credible to say that any Christian is secular in anything he says or does.