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Unlimited arm-swinging is not a credible religious doctrine

Unlimited arm-swinging is not a credible religious doctrine June 3, 2012

Here is an ugly story from New Jersey, via David Badash, “‘For Going Against God’s Will’ Catholic Hospital Denies Gay Man HIV Meds“:

“Joao Simoes sued Trinitas Regional Medical Center in Union County Superior Court,” the Courthouse News Service reports. “He says that the hospital admitted him in August 2011, but that requests for his lifesaving medication were not honored, and his sister was denied visitation rights.”

Susan V. Borga, M.D., from the Department of Behavioral Health and Psychiatry, allegedly approached Simoes while he was confined to the hospital’s mental health wing. Borga is not named as a defendant.

… Borga then allegedly asked Simoes how he got HIV, to which he responded, “I got it from unprotected sex.”

The complaint then says that “Dr. Borga closed the plaintiff’s file, put it down and looked at plaintiff with disgust on her face and asked, coldly, “Is that from sex with men?”

Simoes says he responded affirmatively and that, “immediately after hearing this, Dr. Borga proceeded to exit the room.”

After this consultation, no nurse or doctor came to see Simoes, even though he told them that he needed to take his HIV medication, according to the complaint.

When the hospital finally permitted Simoes to call his personal physician on the third day of his stay, he learned that the doctor had already spoken with Borga about Simoes’ medication, according to the complaint.

Borga allegedly responded: “You must be gay, too, if you’re his doctor.”

“Additionally, apparently realizing that plaintiff’s doctor had an accent, Dr. Borga exclaimed, ‘What, do you need a translator?’ to which plaintiff’s doctor had again responded that Dr. Borga needed to give plaintiff his HIV medication,” the complaint states.

“Dr. Borga responded to plaintiff’s doctor by stating, ‘This is what he gets for going against God’s will,’ and hung up the phone on plaintiff’s doctor.”

The word “allegedly” appears in that story several times for a reason.

[Update: M. McShea writes that this story “may yet prove to be true,” but cautions that “some facts and or names and or circumstances” do not seem to fit. The story is from Courthouse News, and is based on the suit as filed by the plaintiff.]

But if these allegations prove true, then we’re looking at another example of the kind of injustice that arises from allowing any claim of “religious liberty” to trump every other human and civil right. (Hemant Mehta offers another example: “Prominent Israeli Rabbi: Doctors Shouldn’t Treat Gentiles on the Sabbath.”)

Thomas Jefferson famously defended religious liberty by saying, “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” But what happens when your neighbor says that his 20 gods or God or no God requires him to pick pockets and break legs?

What happens when your neighbor asserts that the essence of his religion is pocket-picking and leg-breaking?

That creates a direct conflict of basic rights. Your neighbor has his right to religious liberty — to freedom of conscience. But everyone else also has their right not to have their pockets picked or their legs broken. The Trinitas Regional Medical Center, allegedly, believes that its right to religious liberty is unlimited and trumps any and all other rights. The story Badash relays illustrates the implications of that view.

The classic rebuttal of this view is the idea that “Your right to swing your arm leaves off where my right not to have my nose struck begins.” The logic of that argument is being challenged, today, by those demanding a “religious liberty” to unfettered arm-swinging. Anyone who objects to having their nose struck, these devout believers say, is an anti-religious tyrant.

I don’t find the logic of this claim compelling.

Nor does it strike me as sincere — not when we see a clear pattern, in which all the noses getting struck seem, not-so-coincidentally, to belong to women and to LGBT people. So I suspect the issue for these devoutly religious folks isn’t really so much that they’re devoted to unlimited arm-swinging as that they just don’t like women or LGBT people very much.


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