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{Published in the Colorado Springs Gazette, February 22, 2012}

Religious conservatives are in an uproar over health insurance and birth control. And well they should be. The Obama administration’s initial ruling that Catholic institutions must offer health insurance with birth control to their employees is an unconscionable violation of Catholics’ religious liberty.

Arguments that most Catholics practice birth control, as the New York Times opined, are irrelevant to the question of freedom of conscience. In a free, civil society, this is exactly the sort of issue that religious institutions should have the liberty to decide on their own.

Nor do the “public funding” or “serve the public” arguments hold water. Government is now everywhere and in everything. Every institution on the planet accepts public funding and/or “serves the public” in some way. Those of us who consistently argue for more freedom and less government aren’t happy about that, but we accept it even as we hope to reverse the tide. But that doesn’t justify still more intrusion and further erosion of our liberty.

So while I’m not a social conservative, I stand shoulder to shoulder with them on this issue. Freedom means nothing without freedom of conscience.

But here’s my question to social conservatives: Why do you only worry about freedom of conscience when it impacts you? Why are you so unwilling to give that same freedom to others? Don’t you recognize the outrage you feel when forced to act against your values as exactly what others feel when under your thumb?

Imagine two gay men who want to walk down the street holding hands. Would you give them that liberty? Could they walk by your house? Could they kiss on a bench in the park? Could they join their lives in a civil union? Or is all that just too disgusting to be permitted? Your favorite presidential candidate believes that laws criminalizing sexual acts between same sex partners have a valid place in America. What is that, if not an assault on freedom of conscience?

Or suppose you hear an atheist skip the words “under God” while saying the pledge of allegiance. He believes saying them would violate his conscience. Will you defend him against attacks on his patriotism? How about an officer who leaves God out of his commissioning oath?

What will you do with the marijuana smoker, whose freedom of conscience tells him his body and mind are his alone? What could be more personal than the decision of what to put into your body? If that isn’t a freedom of conscience issue, what is?

Does freedom of conscience only exist for people who agree with you? If that’s what you believe, then what’s the difference between you and a secular liberal? Only what provokes your outrage.

After all, most Democrats support contraception and abortion. They don’t give a flying hoot about your conscience, and will happily make you pay for them. Are things taught in your kids’ public school contrary to your values? Too bad. Liberals won’t let you have a school voucher because to them you’re just stupid and ignorant. Your freedom of conscience doesn’t matter.

Then again, time after time you’ve called their freedom of conscience evil and wrong. Can you really blame them?

When freedom is only recognized piecemeal, we get less of it. Conservatives fight for freedom of conscience, but only when their particular values are threatened. Liberals defend freedom of conscience on personal issues, but will happily slit its throat when the altar of Social Justice needs blood.

This latest brouhaha over insurance and birth control is just one more chop at America’s tree of liberty. For it to flourish and grow healthy, both sides need to get with the program. Conservatives need to distinguish between sins and crimes. Liberals need to separate virtues from requirements. Both need to give others more freedom to act as their conscience dictates. Even when they really, really don’t want to.

That, after all, is the reason for America.

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