The religious lobby in Wisconsin has introduced Assembly Joint Resolution 43 and Senate Joint Resolution 38 which would alter the state’s constitution to include stronger conscience protection exemptions for religious people. What’s a conscience protection exemption? It essentially means you have to follow the law, just like everybody else, unless your religion tells you that you don’t have to. This isn’t always a bad thing. For instance, a school rule prohibiting the wearing of hats at all times, enforced completely across the board, would prohibit a fully functioning Jewish club. That’s not fair. So sometime exceptions must be made.
The problem is when it goes too far, which is what this bill would accomplish:
Personal religious beliefs should not trump civil rights. This amendment bears the Orwellian title, “Religious Freedom Amendment,” but in reality it would allow any individual to claim an exemption from following any law or policy on the basis of a religious objection.
- It could be invoked to give parents and guardians permission to rely on “faith” and “prayer” rather than carry out their duty to seek medical care for gravely ill children.
- It would allow pharmacists to refuse to dispense birth control, or allow religious employers to pay women less.
- It could allow state employees to refuse to marry couples if such a marriage would conflict with their religion — if the couple is inter-racial, for example.
- Theoretically, this bill could even allow priests to refuse to report child rape without penalty.
- It could allow children to opt out of bona fide schoolwork that conflicts with their religion (e.g., no more evolution!).
Happily for the world, this bill was introduced right in the FFRF’s back yard, and they’re none too happy about it.
This change has no regard for how well our religious protections have functioned. The substance of Article 1, Section 18 has been unchanged for 165 years, since Wisconsin’s 1848 Constitution. It explicitly protects from interference with rights of conscience. To amend Section 18 permanently, particularly when the amendment is unquestionably vague, is an insult to the founding document of our state.
Supporters of this constitutional amendment claim that it only is restating current judicial opinions. This is not true. The wording in the amendment is expansive. It turns a shield into a sword. A protection is now something that can be wielded against others. The amendment includes any purported burden on conscience, not just substantial burdens. A person may allege any trivial burden and could violate the law as long as religion was used as a justification. It also covers indirect burdens, which reaches a wide gamut of lawful state actions. Each person would be a law unto themselves.
I suspect the FFRF is ready to go to war if this measure passes. It’s truly a pity they must even prepare for that possibility. Good game, FFRF.