My Ten Cents

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Constitutional Rights, Liberties and Moral Conscience


On Thursday May 23, the Boys Scout of America voted to allow openly gay boys into the organization. This was the result of a combination of push by a lesbian who wanted her son to exercise his right to freedom of association, and the subtle threat by corporations to stop donations to the Boys Scout if changes were not made to adapt to current societal norms. In recent months, many states in America have passed laws either allowing same sex civil unions or marriages, to the chagrin of Christians and other conservative bodies.

Far from the shores of the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and some European countries have equally made changes to accommodate the constitutional rights and liberties of gays and lesbians. I recall the shouts of joy that greeted the decision of the New Zealand parliament to pass the law approving civil union, while listening to the radio on my way to work. Meantime, in some countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and South America, homosexuals are under threats of death and dismemberment. Some countries like Zimbabwe and Uganda have made it a crime punishable by death to engage in homosexual acts; not long ago, the Nigerian senate passed a law ascribing long prison sentences to anyone found engaging in homosexual acts. These countries have always referred to their religious and spiritual beliefs as the driving force behind their decisions; they consider homosexual conducts immoral and un-Godly. Ironically, in these same countries, the law-makers and rulers do not consider it immoral and un-Godly to steal from the poor, deny basic amenities to their citizens, run their countries to the ground, and brazenly kill their political opponents. Obviously to them, morally, this practice is acceptable and Godly.

In the US constitution, widely copied by many emerging and nascent democracies, fundamental human rights are enshrined in the Bill of Rights, and fiercely protected by law. These include the freedoms of association, speech, religion, choice, and the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Equally included in the constitution is the 2nd amendment right to bear arms. Some of these freedoms and rights are borne out of our various religious and societal mores, which forms and shapes our consciences and daily conducts. A conflict arises when society – that is, we – try to strike a balance between our rights, liberties and conscience. This balancing act has, so far, defied even the courts.

Today, governments at every level, conservative groups, and churches, are conflicted on what to do to strike an acceptable balance in the face of an ever-changing, dynamic society. In the state of Arizona, a County Sherriff struggles to strike a balance between a state law which empowers him to stop every brown-skinned resident of his county to ascertain their residency status, against their constitutional rights of freedom of movement without restriction and association. In Farmers Branch, Texas, the city council finds itself in breach of federal law and constitutional provision of fundamental human rights in their efforts to keep illegal immigrants out of their community. The council edict which bars landlords from renting to illegal immigrants, or businesses from employing them, though legally correct, runs counter to the provisions of the biblical instruction to not reject or deny anyone, and to be our brothers’ keeper; the same bible, Koran or other spiritual resources from which we draw most of our moral values.

Following the killing of 12 people and injury to over 50 people in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and the massacre of 26 people (20 of them children under the age of 12) in Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut,  last year, members of congress and some state legislators found themselves caught  in a triad of two constitutional rights – the right to bear arms and the right to life, and the moral obligation to preserve life, in their attempts to amend the gun laws so as to prevent such incidents as we had in Newtown and Aurora. Recently, this same conflict between constitution and conscience surfaced in the US fight against terrorism. Questions have grown louder as to whether it is justifiable to kill Americans in the fight against terrorism. Again, the conflict is between the right to life as guaranteed in the US constitution and the guarantee of safety and security of every American by the government.

On the issue of abortion, pro-lifers have justified their, sometimes fatal, actions against abortion-rights activists and providers on the constitutional and moral right to life. On their part, rights activists have based their actions on the same constitutional provision of freedom of choice. In their efforts to enforce these moral and constitutional rights to life, pro-lifers have had to violate the rights of pro-abortionists. In such instances, they referred to their moral obligations to preserve human life as the reason for their decisions. Unfortunately, the very same source of these moral values and obligations, the bible, had preached against the taking of any life for any reason. In furtherance of this moral obligation, pro-lifers encourage poor and teenage pregnant women not to have abortions; yet, fail to provide them with the resources they need once the baby is born; even as they, secretly, take their pregnant teenage daughters to abortionists in the dead of night.

Last year, the state of Texas cut off financial assistance to Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest provider of basic health care to low income women, because the organization performs or supports abortion. This action left about 58,000 rural poor Texas women without basic health services like mammograms, pre-and post-natal checkups, and the like. In its defense, the state claimed that it will be going against its right to life laws by continuing to support an organization which provides abortion. In this, the state was right to implement its laws. Unfortunately, the process of implementation of this law, which was borne out of morality and conscience, conflicted with the federal constitutional law which outlawed discrimination on the basis of basically everything imaginable under the sun, and the moral law which emphasizes inclusion and equality under God. Basically, the state of Texas was willing to sacrifice the health and well-being of 58,000 of their women, and violate some federal and moral laws, in order to implement others. Interestingly, when the federal government withheld counterpart funding for the program, the state went to court, claiming that the federal government lacks the right to do so. Here again, we see conflicts between constitutional rights and moral conscience.

The issue of gay rights, civil unions, and same-sex marriages has dominated the political landscape in recent times. This is even more divisive and conflicting than any other issue, including illegal immigration. This is more so because the future of some political parties depend on which way they lean on the issue. Opponents of homosexuals have always referred to the bible to justify their positions. They allude to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah to emphasize the seriousness of punishment that awaits any society that accepts homosexual acts. They are equally quick to remind society that God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, etc; they attempt to force their beliefs and moral values on the rest of society, and in the process stymie the constitutional freedom of choice, association, and the right to happiness. Hypocritically, they openly condemn homosexuals, while forcing their like-kind offspring to remain closeted; thereby denying them the freedom and rights conferred on them by the constitution.

In recent years, stories have emerged of pastors, priests, and reverends of various religious denominations preaching against homosexual practices one day, and caught sleeping with altar boys and congregation members the next day; of prominent conservative politicians pushing anti-homosexual laws one day, only to announce publicly the next that their son or daughter is homosexual; of companies openly opposing same-sex marriages and civil unions, and at the same time welcoming their monies at the counters with open arms. This forces the question; is a coin held by a stained finger not equally stained?

In the middle of this entire struggle to define and take a stand on these very divisive issues is our moral value which, in part, forms our conscience. The Boys Scout of America is a vehicle for imparting strength, communal support, morality, and hard work on our youth; however, in its long-standing policy of excluding openly homosexual boys from the organization, it was denying these boys the constitutional freedom to associate in pursuit of happiness. Yet, while maintaining this policy of exclusion based on religious values, it was not self-restricting in its acceptance of funds from this so-called morally corrupt segment of our society. The recent vote to openly allow gays into the Boys Scout organization may have been morally wrong for some; it was constitutionally right in a nation that emphasizes equal rights under the law, and an organization which depends on the generosity of individuals and corporations to survive.

When the bill to strengthen the gun laws failed in the senate, the National Rifle Association and its supporters, which included many in congress, pointed to the 2nd amendment of the constitution as the reason for their votes. Ironically, many of the very same politicians have supported every anti-abortion bill that had made it through congress, citing both constitutional and biblical right to life as the reason for their support. This reminds one of the novel Animal Farm, and a possible message that some lives are truly more equal than others; or that while there may be a moral justification to protect the life of an unborn child, there is no such obligation to protect and preserve an already existing one.

The same, or similar, assumption could be made of the decision by the state of Texas to cut off financial assistance to Planned Parenthood; thereby, leaving 58,000 rural poor women without basic healthcare. The state government’s moral obligation to protect the rights of the unborn, over-rode its constitutional obligation to provide life (healthcare) for all Texans, liberty (right to choose), and an enabling environment to pursue happiness to these women, some of whom, possibly, lost the very same pregnancies the state was trying to protect, due to lack of access to adequate health services. How ironic!

The debate on why children develop emotional and sexual feelings for the same sex is still raging; while scientists and psychologists attribute it to genetics, the religious community believes that this practice is developed and cultivated due to spiritual and moral bankruptcy, arising from society’s abandonment of God’s ways. On this belief is premised their decision to consider homosexuality evil. Assuming the religious communities were to be correct, what would be the appropriate way to approach this evil practice? While some members of the clergy have adopted isolationism, others have opted for spiritual exorcism. The problem with isolationism is that it negates the biblical principle of inclusion and oneness under God. So, while it may be morally right to condemn homosexuals, it is equally religiously wrong to isolate or reject them.

While it may be politically expedient, and in conformity with party ideology to rail against liberal or conservative views and principles –depending on which political fence one chooses to perch- it is equally politically suicidal to close one’s doors against a strongly independent and financially viable segment of the voting society; especially, in an age and time when the perceived leaders of tomorrow are increasingly non-religious, without a defined ideology, and openly bi-sexual. Recent decisions by some churches to ordain homosexual priests seem to be in recognition that these are the congregation of tomorrow, and preparations must be made to accommodate them. A continuous practice to isolate them, though morally and principally in keeping with religious doctrine, will spell extinction of the church; something that businesses, community leaders, and private non-governmental organizations have begun to realize. Here, also, lies a conflict between moral values and survival. In this example, Christian values and principles were sacrificed for the need to survive and remain viable.

In every difficult situation one confronts in life, be it economic, political, social, or moral judgment, there is bound to be an opportunity cost involved in the eventual decision on what position we take. For that Sherriff Joe Arpaio in Maricopa County in the state of Arizona, a moral obligation to carry out the immigration laws of his state came at the cost of constitutional rights and freedom of a specific demographic and race of the residents of the county. Whichever option he chose would still have made him enemies. When we decide not to serve a certain race, gender or sexual orientation based on our moral and religious beliefs, we not only close the door on an opportunity to expand our horizon, but we also deny ourselves the market and revenue share of that segment. Many times, when we take a stand based on our moral values, like in the case of abortion and homosexuality, we inadvertently trample on the constitutional rights of others. If, on the other hand, we are to take a stand based on the constitutional provisions, like the right to bear arms, we compromise the rights and moral obligation to preserve the life, safety and security of others.

When we adopt positions based on the pursuit of our rights, liberties and freedom, such positions will always be in conflict with our moral and religious values. Unfortunately, our constitutional rights and moral values will always conflict, because they interact and overlap in every position we take. Finding an amicable balance will always be difficult because we had, over the years, pushed ourselves to the extremes of our convictions, and have become accepting of intersectional consequences of our moral values and constitutional rights.

 

Felix Oti

Arlington, TX

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