In the heated aftermath of the Kim Davis case, Pope Francis has come down firmly on the side of government employees in their right to conscientious objection on the basis of their religious convictions.
When asked about religious liberty aboard the papal plane during his return trip from the United States to Rome, Francis said that “conscientious objection is a right” and “if someone does not allow others to object on the basis of conscience, he denies a right.”
Terry Moran of ABC asked the Pope pointedly about his unscheduled visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor last week. That group is currently in litigation with the Obama administration over the HHS mandate.
Papal spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told reporters that the Pope met with the religious sisters as “a sign of support” for them in their lawsuit against the federal government.
In July, a federal appeals court ruled that the Little Sisters must comply with the HHS mandate that requires their health insurance carriers to subsidize contraceptive and some abortion services for employees or face onerous fines from the IRS.
Along with the case of the Little Sisters, the reporter asked the Pope whether he supports individuals—including government officials—who say they cannot in good conscience abide by some laws or discharge their duties as state officials, such as issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
While Francis said that he doesn’t have familiarity with every religious liberty case, he could say that in principle conscientious objection is a right that must be respected.
“There should be room for conscientious objection in every juridical structure,” he said, “because it is a right, a human right. Otherwise we would wind up in a situation where we pick and choose which rights we will honor, saying ‘this right that has merit, this one does not.’”
The Pope drew on the example of the “Chanson de Roland,” the 11th-century classic of French literature, which Francis often read as a young man. “I was always moved,” he said, when I read that “all the Mohammedans were standing in line and presented with the baptismal font or the sword. They had to choose. They weren’t permitted conscientious objection. It is a right and if we want to make peace we have to respect all rights,” he said.
When pressed whether that right extends to government officials in the exercise of their office as well, Pope Francis replied: “It is a human right and if a government official is a human being, he has that right. It is a human right.”
Kim Davis, a Kentucky county clerk, spent five days in jail for refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome