While I was worrying about the unethical nature of so-called “conscience clauses,” which allow certain professionals, like pharmacists, withhold their services when they clash with the professional’s religious convictions, the Arizona legislature was cooking up something unimaginably worse. Last week the Arizona House of Representatives passed and sent to the Governor Brewer to sign into law SB 1288, a mind-blowing bill prohibiting the denial of occupational licenses or positions on public bodies because of an individual’s exercise of religion.
The soon-to-be-law states:
A. Government shall not deny, suspend or revoke a professional or occupational license, certificate or registration based on a person’s exercise of religion.
B. Government shall not deny, suspend or revoke a professional or occupational license, certificate or registration based on a person’s refusal to affirm a statement that is contrary to the person’s sincerely held moral or religious beliefs, regardless of whether those beliefs are specifically espoused by a recognized church or religious body…
C. A person’s exercise of religion is not unprofessional conduct.
D. Government shall not deny a person a position on a board, commission, committee or public body based on the person’s religious beliefs or exercise of religion.
E. This section does not authorize any person to engage in sexual misconduct or any criminal conduct.
F. For purposes of this section … “sexual misconduct” means any sexual conduct proscribed by the person’s licensing board or agency. Sexual misconduct does not include religious expression or beliefs.
Prof. Eugene Volokh, over at the Volokh Conspiracy, lists several examples of how the law would interfere with the ethical standards of professions to the detriment and even endangerment of the public. Among them:
- A lawyer or psychotherapist who betrays client confidences because he feels a religious motivation to do so would be free from professional discipline.
- A doctor who feels a religious motivation to affirmatively omit to tell a patient that one of her therapeutic options is an abortion — even when the patient is unaware that the doctor takes this approach, and thus is unaware that an abortion might even be a possibly helpful option — would be free from professional discipline.
- A doctor who feels a religious motivation to affirmatively lie to a patient to prevent an abortion on the theory that lying is religiously justified when necessary to prevent murder.
- A person who engages in racial, religious, or sexual orientation discrimination in his own business, based on a felt religious obligation to do so, even when his action is in violation of the law, because a court has held that the religious obligation doesn’t suffice to give him a legal immunity from anti-discrimination laws, couldn’t be denied a seat on a board that enforces anti-discrimination laws.
- A lawyer, psychotherapist, or a doctor couldn’t be denied a seat on an official professional regulatory body on the grounds that he had violated professional standards if he or she had engaged in the conduct cited above.
The best one can say about this awful law is that it absurdly and incompetently over-broad. The worst is that it is not only unethical, but affirmatively anti- ethics, preventing professions from enforcing consistent ethical standards for the protection of the public and the integrity of the profession, and society from determining that certain kinds of conduct, whether endorsed by a religion or not, are outside cultural ethical norms and not in the best interests of the community.
If an individual’s religious beliefs prevent him or her from performing the duties of a profession and meeting that profession’s standards of conduct, then that individual needs to find another career. Arizona’s law elevates religion above ethics, when it should be the other way around.