Civil Disobedience, Religious Right-Style

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Forget WWJD. The new question is apparently What Would MLK Do? A coalition of politically and theologically conservative Christian leaders, including nine Roman Catholic bishops, who have just signed a declaration saying they will not comply with laws that could require them to recognize same-sex unions or allow their institutions to support abortions are arguing that the move is of a piece with King’s call for civil disobedience during the civil rights movement. 

The declaration reads, in part: “We will not comply with any edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide and euthanasia, or any other antilife act; nor will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent.”

Instead of debating whether these causes belong in the same category as providing equal rights and treatment to racial minorities, the better question may be: Why now?After all, most people agree with the first part of the statement and believe religious institutions and individuals should be protected by conscience provisions that protect them from being compelled to participate in acts like abortion that they believe are murder. And, in fact, they are.

After nearly eight full years of relying on previous conscience protections, the Bush administration broadened those exceptions last year at the request of religious leaders. Early on, some Obama advisors made noises about rolling back those protections, but after an outcry, they backed off and the current tightened provisions still stand. In addition, both the House and Senate versions of health reform contain strict conscience protections for health workers, medical institutions, and even insurance providers.

As for same-sex unions, most people also agree that religious institutions shouldn’t be forced to perform ceremonies blessing the unions. No law or proposal to date would require them to do so, but the idea that churches would be compelled to open their doors to an endless stream of gay weddings has been a scare tactic in many campaigns to outlaw same-sex marriage, including Prop 8 in California last year. 

A more pressing concern for the religious leaders lies at the end of the statement above: “…treat them as marriages or the equivalent.” As I wrote here earlier this week, the D.C. city council has resisted adding religious exceptions to a proposal regarding gay marriage and spousal benefits, unlike other cities such as Salt Lake City. That’s a concern for many religious organizations that receive government grants to provide social services and could be deemed ineligible if they refuse to allow the partners of gay employees to receive spousal benefits.

But perhaps an equally pressing motivator for this declaration is the fact that many of these conservative religious leaders are losing ground in internal debates regarding which issues are considered most important for their faith communities. As Chuck Colson, one of the signers, told the New York Times, “A lot of the younger evangelicals say they’re all alike. We’re hoping to educate them that these [abortion, homosexuality, and religious freedom] are the three most important issues.”