The Limits of Freedom

us constitution

We the people...

I sat down and read the Constitution of the United States of America this morning. (Yes, the whole thing.) I was trying to answer some important and pressing questions.

Where do my freedoms stop – and your freedoms begin? When are my rights allowed to infringe on yours?

These are not hypothetical questions. Because you see, while we all technically have the same basic human rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – the way in which we exercise those rights means that occasionally we are going to step on each other’s toes, get our lines crossed and come to an ugly stand-off, or even uglier blows.

To complicate matters, in this country we have a few other protected rights:

The freedom to establish and exercise our religion. We have freedom of speech, and press. We have the freedom to assemble, and the freedom to petition the government.

We have the freedom to bear arms and form militias.

We have the freedom to not (personally) house soldiers during times of peace.

We have freedom FROM unreasonable search and seizure of our property.

We have the freedoms of due process of law.

And we have the freedom to debate, decide, determine, dole out, and even deny other rights as they come up. We do this as a people, by petitioning our government, by electing officials who we believe will best uphold, support and defend our interests and by participating in our government so that it remains – Of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Such a debate is raging across the nation even as I type. In fact, many such debates are raging. They center around the freedoms of three groups of people – Gays, women, and certain types/sects of Christians.

In these debates the question seems to continually circle back to  – Do basic HUMAN rights – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – trump your right to practice your religion as you see fit?

church vs state

Is there a limit to religious freedom?

Does someone else’s gay marriage infringe on your right to think gays are evil, devil spawn? If churches who believe that gays should die and burn in Hell are exempt from performing gay marriages in the handful of places where gays are allowed to marry – then what about a judge, county clerk, or other legally ordained public official who also holds those beliefs? Should they also be exempt? Or do they have a responsibility to do their job and uphold their sworn duties that trumps their religious freedom and protects the rights of the rest of the citizens in their jurisdiction?

Does a doctor who has taken an oath to do no harm, to treat the sick, to NOT play at being God, have a responsibility to perform his/her sworn duties that trumps their personal beliefs, thus protecting the rights, liberties and LIVES of the citizens under their care? Does this responsibility include performing EMERGENCY, LIFE SAVING abortions? Further, if a bill passes that allows for medical institutions to practice medicine based on religious belief rather than medical science – does that, in fact, “ensure that hospitals’ institutional dictates, including those at odds with medical science, could override the consciences of the doctors who work for them, even when those dictates unreasonably risk women’s lives.” Is a nurse required by his/her job and title to deliver post-operative care to a patient, regardless of personal beliefs and regardless of the operation performed?

Does my pharmacist’s right to exercise her/his religion trump their responsibility to do their job and dispense the medicines that my doctor has deemed medically necessary?

Can a soldier have a sudden change of faith and decide to simply stop shooting? Would he be protected from legal action, or discharge from the army when he returned home, or does his sworn duty as a soldier trump his religious freedoms? (Thanks to Jess D’Arbonne for this one.)

Can a postal worker choose to stop delivering mail which they find morally objectionable? Or stop delivering to people they find morally objectionable? Does a Baptist postal worker have to deliver mail to a gay couple? Is my postal worker required to deliver porn, condoms, HRC membership bulletins, religious fliers from a rival faith?

When I brought this up on faceboook I was fed the line “Tolerance is a two-way street, and well it should be.” Yes – I agree. To a point. And that point, that line in the sand, is when people use their religious freedoms as a way to both refuse to do their job, and a way to deny other people their fundamental rights.

I believe – and you are free to argue here on the FREE SPEECH RULES, I mean, think banned thoughts, blog – I believe that we, as a people, should be able to trust that the people in positions of power and authority in our lives will do their jobs.

I should be able to trust that my child’s science teacher is teaching her SCIENCE.

I should be able to trust that the doctors in the emergency room will do everything in their power to save my life in a timely manner, and the nurses in that hospital will provide me with the care I require to recover.

I should be able to trust that my pharmacist will fill any prescription my doctor has written and deemed medically necessary for me.

I should be able to trust that my postal worker will deliver all of my mail.

I should be able to trust that a judge/county clerk/other authorized public official in a state that allows gay marriage will perform such a marriage.

I should be able to trust that the police will uphold and enforce all of the laws of my state and city.

I should be able to trust that an enlisted soldier will perform their duties and protect our nation.

I should be able to trust that the people around me will do the jobs they have sworn to do, especially when those people are in positions of power or hold my life or freedoms in their hands.

So perhaps, the real question here isn’t about when my rights are allowed to infringe on yours, but when our RESPONSIBILITIES as active, participatory citizens in a collective society trump our freedoms? After all as Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt reminds us, “Freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being. With freedom comes responsibility.”

We must balance our personal freedoms against our public responsibilities. Certain jobs carry more public responsibility than others. If your personal beliefs render you unable to perform the responsibilities of the job you’ve agreed to do – then quite frankly, you should be fired or you should quit.



Filed under Of Course I'm a Feminist, Rant

12 responses to “The Limits of Freedom

  1. Jess

    Beautifully written and thought-out, as always. I’ll be promoting on my Twitter feed and my new blog! I think you’ve settled on the fundamental point: Your right to punch ends at my face. No one has the “right” (religious, constitutional, or otherwise) to infringe on the rights of others. Infringing on someone else’s rights in the name of your personal religious freedom is NOT religious freedom… it’s bullying. Pretty sure that Jesus guy had something important to say about that: “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.”
    Anyway, bravo! I look forward to reading the discussion this one is sure to bring up. 🙂

  2. Dennis Mont'Ros

    Nikki Giovanni spoke on campus today. It was amazing, and relevant to your great blog. One of her observations was, why does the administration’s health care system cover viagra, but not abortions? Do they fail to see the irony? And then why does the guy who knocks up the chick get to walk away and still make the decision on what happens next?

    • These are the questions I wrestle with daily. Someone smarter than me has said that if men got pregnant this debate would end. But since that day will never come, it is up to tose of us who do understand that duplicity to hold the line and keep women’s reproductive rights safe.

  3. Great post, Bree. Very thoughtful. I wish some of the people running for president would stop and read the Constitution. I honestly don’t think they know what it says, or else they willfully misunderstand it.

    • I agree. I think every citizen of this nation should read it at least once a year. And – oh I’m gonna get slammed for this if anyone bothers to read down this far – I also think that CHILDREN should have to read it, or have it read to them, and discuss it, learn about it, come to some understanding of it before they are asked to say the pledge of allegiance in school. Seriously, how can we ask our children to pledge allegiance to their nation before they understand what that means? Grrr.

  4. Zach Ervin

    One of the problems that I see is that we are given the opportunity, and sometimes mandate, to prioritize our actions. A police officer can choose to bust a car load of darker skinned youth for possession of a controlled substance, or that officer can look for a rapist. A soldier must decide which target to fire upon first, the ten year old with an AK-47 or the young woman throwing grenades. The police officer will often choose the easier, less dangerous plan of action even if he personally does not believe in drug prohibition. The soldier must decide which person will die in order to save his own life and that of his men.
    Does a history teacher have the right or (responsibility) to add, subtract, or modify the information presented in class to stay true to the theme, true to his personal beliefs, or just to more firmly impress upon his students? Does he in effect change history if he refuses to teach his class that the USA is the best country to ever exist? Should he be required to blindly teach directly from the district approved text book, or should he delve deeper into sections of history that are often overlooked in text books but that also have a profound impact on our current culture?
    We can never eliminate personal opinion or belief from a person’s daily actions including their profession. However, one person’s rights should never be used to eliminate another’s.

    • thinkbannedthoughts

      Ah, thanks Zach – you bring up some very important points. After all it is our personal beliefs that make us individuals – and the last thing I want is a country full or robotic automatons, blindly doing what they’re told.
      And of course, nothing is as black and white, cut and dried as we’d like it to be – there are so very many shades of grey. So many choices that come at us every day, and we do have to follow our convictions in order to navigate the murky waters of this life.
      All of that said, you are right, my freedoms do not allow, or should not allow, me to deprive you of yours.
      And vice versa.
      But in between my rights and yours, there’s a lot of room to wiggle.

  5. Anon

    Honestly, I think your thesis in your most recent post was a little bit off. Not wrong, just off. “Do basic HUMAN rights – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – trump your right to practice your religion as you see fit?” Which you then concluded, “So perhaps, the real question here isn’t about when my rights are allowed to infringe on yours, but when our RESPONSIBILITIES as active, participatory citizens in a collective society trump our freedoms?”

    I think the real issue at stake is CIVIL versus ECCLISIASTICAL. That is the crux of the matter. And ideally, the two should never meet. With regard to gay marriages, I think this is a subject that has been thrown out there as a debate point by the media to keep the conversation going to other subjects which in my opinion are more important (like how we’ve lost our Republic due to decisions like Citizens United v FEC). The entire gay marriage debate has been hijacked from the get-go to distract people and play at their emotions rather than intellect.

    We, as rational free Americans should have debated this issue for about 5 seconds. It comes down to this, once the government tramples on the rights of one individual, it tramples on the rights of all. The government can’t force the church to perform gay marriages if they don’t want to. But the government has no right to withhold that right from consenting adult citizens. Period. End of debate. So in your question, if a person is a civil judge refusing to perform a gay marriage because his religious faith forbids it, then he’s not a civil judge anymore. Problem solved. But I don’t think it is actually a problem because the majority of civil individuals in such positions know where the line between their civil / religious authorities lie. And if they don’t they shouldn’t hold those positions long.

    Regarding your medical example. A doctor performing an emergency life-saving abortion (And I consider a miscarriage different than an abortion), is a far cry from a doctor performing an abortion of convenience. If everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, then what about an unborn fetus in a non-emergency, non-life threatening (to the mother) situation? But the people who hijack the language don’t want people to think through things rationally. And they in turn have been hi-jacked by the drive and need for funds over the drive and need to govern. But, the government cannot force for example, a Catholic-run and Catholic-funded hospital to distribute contraceptive materials. It is not a life or death situation. If people need contraception, they can go elsewhere. You don’t go to a Kosher deli to get pulled pork. But the instant when a hospital refuses to offer life-saving care due to religious reasons, then they cease to be a hospital don’t they? For the record, I don’t think you’ll find me visiting any Christian Scientist hospitals any time soon (and yes that is a joke).

    As for your soldier. There are actually laws on the books in the UCMJ that cover conscientious objector status and who gets it when and why. I submit that anyone in a firefight knows really only 3 options, fight, flight, or die. That’s really about it. Afterwards, you have a ton of time to reflect on what you should or shouldn’t have done. But in the moment, anyone who is having an instant change of faith and choosing to stop shooting is pretty close to just laying down and dying.

    Your postal worker? Yes, has to do all those things even if he finds them morally objectionable. Civil worker versus church worker. If they don’t do it… not a postal worker anymore. Simple.

    If your child is going to a government-funded public school, then you shouldn’t expect your child to learn creationism. That’s for the church, and Sunday School. But if your child is attending a parochial Church and privately funded school, the government shouldn’t have a say in what they teach. And if your child suffers later in life because of one system’s flaws over another’s, well, let’s just say that in the privately funded case, the market should bare it out. Again, you don’t go to a Kosher deli for pulled-pork sandwiches.

    If as a civil worker, you refuse to perform your duties due to religious objections, then you shouldn’t be a civil worker anymore. The fact that this is even a debate in this country right now shows how far we have strayed, how we are easily distracted, and how entitled we’ve become. How is it somehow even thinkable that someone not willing to perform their job should be allowed to keep said job? It also follows that if a person believes that strongly about their religious ideals, then perhaps they shouldn’t fill those positions. There is a good line from Shakespeare’s Henry V that captures this idea in a nutshell, “Every subject’s duty is the king’s; but every subject’s soul is his own.”

    Live your life as you choose to live it, but if you’re not comfortable with how it might square up with your idea of the numinous, then you probably need to change it. You can’t eat your cake and have it too. But nowadays, that’s what most people want. It is not the government’s job to enforce religious doctrine. Ultimately, though the government ensures your right to pursue happiness. It doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be happy. Every person’s happiness is their own responsibility.

    Just keep in mind that there are conservatives out there that are fucking appalled by the offerings that pass for leadership right now. Santorum “won” Colorado with less than 10% of registered Republican voters participating in the caucus. And that’s not counting all the conservatives out there that don’t consider ourselves Republicans. I don’t honestly think that the primary debate in this country right now should even be about right vs left, or Democrat vs Republican, or Obama versus Rick, Mitt, and Newt. But should be about We the People against the government as it has become. Any government that would squander more than 7 trillion dollars in bailouts and place the futures of all of its citizens at risk, while concealing it from those very citizens, is irresponsible at best. But it’s easier to get an emotional rise and ratings on the 24 hour news cycle out of misguided OWS protesters blogging from their iPads about how under-privileged they are, gay marriage (which should already be a done deal in the affirmative if people looked at it from a strictly legal sense), and American Idol, etc…than talk about the crisis this nation is really in. The bottom line is that future elections aren’t really going to matter all that much, because our leaders have sold us down the river and we helped them do it!

    Abraham Lincoln once said, “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” I increasingly think that he was more prescient with that statement than possibly anything else he said.

    • Beautifully stated. Thank you.
      My single objection is in the instance of Catholic (or other religious run) hospitals.
      This is because of two things – First on a strictly legal/economic level, they receive funding from the government. In the form of tax exempt status, grants, medicaid/medicare insurance payments, etc. Just as Planned Parenthood is blocked from using government money to perform abortions, I think that all hospitals receiving government support should be required to practice medicine, and to use that government funding to provide/offer basic, standard health care to all of the people they serve.
      Since Catholic hospitals are not allowed to deny service to people of other faiths, they must be prepared to meet the medical needs of those people.
      Second – on a “socialist” level – it is not as simple as “don’t like it, go somewhere else.” Something like 25% of the hospitals in this country are run by religious institutions. Many of them are the only hospitals available for hundreds of miles. In a medical emergency traveling that distance can amount to a death sentence.
      People need to be able to trust that medical professionals will be, um, professional.
      But then again, I believe in socialized medicine. I’ve lived in numerous places where it was available and appreciated being able to get my basic medical needs met and trust that I would receive the care I needed regardless of the practitioner’s opinion of those services.
      Last – I swear – medical licensing is controlled by the government, thus, in my opinion, making the entire medical profession a civil job, not an ecclesiastical one.

    • Jess

      I think Anon made a really wonderful, eloquent point about how easily in this country we get derailed from the important points through the use of… well, distractions concocted by politicos. Very well said, and I agree.

      I believe the issue with Catholic hospitals and institutions and contraceptives has been muddied by this exact derailment technique. At this point the bill is not to force Catholic-run hospitals to dispense birth control, but to cover it on their employees’ insurance plans (employees who may or may not actually be Catholic). Birth control can be prohibitively expensive for some people if they don’t have insurance to cover it. So these employees could be going elsewhere to get their birth control, they just need their employer-given insurance to cover it.

      And last point (because I can’t keep my mouth shut and you may feel free to kick me Bree) on derailment: “Abortion for convenience” is an incredibly problematic phrase. Because:

      a) It suggests that a woman must have a “legitimate” reason to terminate a pregnancy. And if a “legitimate” abortion is just fine and dandy, then what makes that aborted embryo or fetus worthless, and a fetus or embryo aborted “for convenience” precious and valuable?

      b) If we outlaw abortions “for convenience” then it makes pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting a punishment for women. And I’m not a parent, but I can imagine that considering children a punishment could be downright offensive to parents who willingly chose to go through pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting and love their kids.

      c) “If everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, then what about an unborn fetus in a non-emergency, non-life threatening (to the mother) situation?” Considering the life of a viable embryo in an early-term abortion is not considering everyone’s right to life, etc. It’s granting said embryo super-rights over the rights of the pregnant person. We don’t require mandatory organ donation in this country because it violates one person’s right to bodily autonomy. A forced pregnancy IS mandatory organ donation, and to advocate such a thing means valuing the lives of women at a much lower level than the lives of potential people. I’ll be honest: I almost get physically ill when someone tells me that my life is worth less than an embryo in my womb that could end up as a miscarriage in two months anyway. It smacks of misogyny.

      So maybe I’m guilty of the same derailment that we agree is bad for honest discourse in this country. 🙂 Regardless, Bree: Thank you for this blog! And to Anon, thank you for writing up such a thoughtful comment. You really got me to think.

      • Jess – as always, thanks for stopping by. (I’ll never kick you off my blog.)
        I really appreciate your phrasing in point three above – regarding forced pregnancy. I have been trying to figure out how to explain to people that valuing an embryo over a human is problematic at best. I think you did an excellent job of explaining some of the problems with that line of thinking.
        And I agree RE: Anon’s post. It was well stated and well thought.

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