Lessons on Conscience Protection from the UK

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from The Witherspoon Institute,

Unless Americans respond to the Supreme Court’s recent marriage decisions with greater protections for the rights of conscience, our first freedom is sure to lose force, just as it has in the UK.

Over the past twenty years I have witnessed firsthand the steady assault on the rights of citizens in Britain to speak and act according to their conscience. During that time different parts of the British state, including our Parliament, publicly funded organizations, and the judiciary, have opposed and punished the expression of belief and conscience.

My American friends are, like me, horrified at this rapid deterioration in personal liberty and freedom in the UK. Most of them believe, however, that the First Amendment would stop such a thing from happening in the “land of the free.”

A cautionary tale: The first case that drew my attention to conscience restrictions arose in 2001. A street preacher named Harry Hammond went into Bournemouth city center carrying a placard that read, “Jesus Gives Peace, Jesus Is Alive, Stop Immorality, Stop Homosexuality, Stop Lesbianism, Jesus Is Lord.” He set up his placard and, as he started to speak, a crowd surrounded him, pushed him to the ground, threw water and soil at him, and pulled down his sign.

The police arrived, noted that Hammond had been attacked, and arrested him for inciting the attack he had suffered. They did not arrest anyone who had assaulted him. He was found guilty, and ordered to pay fines and costs totaling $1,000. Shortly after his conviction he was hospitalized, recovered, but shortly thereafter died.

Many people, including some Christians, would not agree with Hammond’s views, but as a victim of violence, should he have been arrested?

Even gay rights activist Peter Tatchell, a man who has been beaten and abused for his sexuality, offered to testify on Hammond’s behalf in any subsequent appeal. Even he saw the dangers inherent in Hammond’s treatment.

Could the same thing happen in the United States? The First Amendment does stand as a bulwark against the erosion of liberal freedoms to speak, to assemble, and to act out of conscience; but for how long?

cases are already pending in lower US courts. If they were to come before a British court, the decision would be entirely predictable, and conscience would be no defense.

How will the United States deal with Catholic adoption agencies that do not wish to place a child with a same-sex couple? To guess at the answer, we need only reflect on the fact that Catholic adoption agencies in the UK (and three US jurisdictions: Massachusetts, Illinois, and the District of Columbia) have felt that they have no choice but to close.

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