The Geneva College Case: Edelweiss and Rights of Conscience Today– Guest Essayist: Kevin Theriot
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of The Sound of Music, a sweet love story built around the somewhat grittier sub-plot of Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria in the late 1930s. The movie is actually based on the true story of an Austrian naval hero – Captain Georg von Trapp – who opposes the Nazi Anschluss and refuses to accept a commission in the German navy. He takes a stand near the end of the movie by singing the patriotic song “Edelweiss” at a local festival. The song summons all Austrians who love freedom to stand by their convictions and refuse to violate them, even when being coerced by an out-of-control executive.
This somewhat cheesy but extremely entertaining musical is a great example of what happens when the executive branch of government gains so much power that it feels free to violate the freedoms of an individual and a whole nation. Freedom of conscience is so important it is enshrined in the very first amendment to the United States Constitution. And our Founding Fathers thought freedom from government coercion so vital that they built it into the very structure of our government. Power is split between three coequal branches – legislative, executive, and judicial – to keep dictatorial officials like Herr Zeller in check.
When that delicate balance is out of kilter, freedom suffers. Unfortunately, that is happening right now in the United States. When passing the Affordable Care Act (often referred to as Obamacare), Congress delegated to the Department of Health and Human Services (part of the executive branch) the power to both make the rules – Congress’s job – and enforce them. HHS is using that power to force religious organizations like Geneva College, a Christian school in Pennsylvania, to include abortion-causing drugs in their insurance plans. This violates the school’s convictions just like being part of the German war machine violated Captain von Trapp’s. The school believes this is a grave sin and has brought suit seeking relief under our laws protecting freedom of conscience.
Other similar religious organizations have been successful in their lawsuits as courts recognized that freedom of conscience is vital to our democracy and that the executive branch is wrong to fine them if they refuse to violate their conscience. Regretfully, the appeals court hearing Geneva College’s case was not convinced. The school is now seeking relief before the United States Supreme Court.
Some may argue this is very different than Captain von Trapp’s situation. The government is not actually forcing the good folks at Geneva College to use abortion-causing drugs. But many who served in the German armed forces did not support Hitler and never joined the Nazi Party (as was apparently the case for Field Marshal Rommel, for instance). Their service nevertheless supported the Nazi cause. That is why Captain von Trapp’s conscience did not allow him to serve – even under protest. Geneva College’s conscience similarly prohibits it from being involved in facilitating the use of abortion-causing drugs in any way – even indirectly.
Both crises of conscience are a result of government executives seizing or being delegated too much power. When legislators properly exercise their power to promulgate rules, they are much more likely to be sensitive to individual rights like freedom of conscience. They are directly elected, not appointed by the president.
Coerced violation of conscience is the calling card of unfettered executives throughout history. Our founders knew this and did their best to keep our leaders from succumbing to the same dictatorial tendencies of King George. Likewise, we intuitively know it was wrong for the German high command to force Captain von Trapp to leave his seven children and new wife to serve a regime he opposed.
His defiant singing of “Edelweiss” reminds all of us who love freedom that no government official should be given unfettered power to force individuals to violate their conscience. It also reminds us that our convictions mean nothing if we do not stand by them – even at the risk of loss of home and livelihood.
Kevin Theriot is senior counsel with the Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal alliance that employs a unique combination of strategy, training, funding, and litigation to protect and preserve religious liberty, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family.
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