The Geneva College Case: Edelweiss and Rights of Conscience Today– Guest Essayist: Kevin Theriot

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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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10 replies
  1. Barb Zack
    Barb Zack says:

    The scene in this movie moves me to tears, every time. The Captain had such a love of country and it broke his heart as he looked into the future of Austria. I wonder how many Americans, facing the same situation, would sing our National Anthem as armed guards stood ready to take us prisoners. As Mr. Theriot stated, we must be willing to stand by our beliefs and convictions, even as the forces of evil stand at the Gate!

    Reply
  2. Ron
    Ron says:

    What keeps rising its head in the complaints of conservatives about the ever-growing “national” government is the power of the enormous number of federal agencies to legislate, execute, and judge. The agencies operate under the Executive Department – the President. On the surface, it may not appear that the President is concentrating power, especially when he faces a Congress majority of a different party. However, when a President has a large number of federal agencies at his disposal, he can effectively work around a hostile Congress.

    In the late 1880s, long before he was President, Woodrow Wilson articulated the case for executive agencies (what he called scientific administration by experts). His reasoning was, among other things, that the world is too complex for mere politicians, who should stick with politics and leave administration to PhDs in technical disciplines, including the new technical discipline (at that time) of political “science.” Later he argued for more power in the presidency, which reinforced his call for expert administration. Eventually, the politicians in both parties came to accept the need for agencies, probably underestimating the risk that agencies would grow to the point they have reached today.

    If we want to change the direction of increased power in the executive branch, eliminating, not merely reducing the size of, many of the agencies is necessary. This will take political will and that can only happen if “we the people” demand it. I’m not sure a sufficient number of people understand all this yet to be able to get behind a movement to greatly eliminate a large number of agencies; eliminating the IRS alone would not be sufficient.

    Reply
  3. Brian
    Brian says:

    Despite the yeomen work of ADF and others, a tsunami of a particular kind of legislation and regulation is impacting our culture at break neck speed. The sanctity of life and the sanctity of human sexuality as revealed by our Creator in the institution of marriage are at the political vortex of these cultural riptides. What Geneva College is defending is not freedom for freedom’s sake. What other Christians around the world are defending is not their own honor or even their own lives in many cases, but Almighty God’s honor and glory. They are saying, God has higher claims upon my conscience than man.

    Nations and civilizations wax and wane, but their is only one King (Psalm 2). We pray for our country, support ADF, and do our civil duty to preserve what is good and restore what has been lost, but the real battle is in the spiritual realm (Eph 6). Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. When we lose our Way the Truth becomes relativism, and Life becomes death.
    God tends to give nations the rulers that they deserve. Ultimately the world’s system will implode to prepare the way for the One who will rule in righteousness for eternity.

    Our freedom, rights, and liberties are self serving when detached from Christ. We have become like Israel in the time of the judges, “Everyone does that which is right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Love of country has it place, but it is a temporal thing. True freedom and liberty are in Christ alone and can be possessed and practiced even in the face of repression and the threat of death. Christ guarantees the victory through His own death and resurrection to pay for our sin and restore us to full fellowship with God. Therefore, while we love the USA, we look for a city whose builder and maker is God (Heb 11:10).

    Reply
  4. David
    David says:

    Amen to Ron and Brian.
    We need to live as God commands, consistently with the Gospel that we proclaim. We are not immune to persecution, therefore we need to in advance decide to follow Christ and remain true to Him, because His approval is more important than anything else.

    Reply
  5. Allan Hampton
    Allan Hampton says:

    “The school believes this is a grave sin”, is at best misleading. Neither man, nor man’s government in the U.S. is the judge of sin, particularly the other fellow’s sin.

    “democracy” is outright constitutionally incorrect – Article IV, Section 4, Clause 1. “The United States shall guarantee to every State in the Union a Republican Form of Government,”

    “appeals court hearing Geneva College’s case was not convinced” – a constitutionally correct decision. U.S. courts are not a court to consider sin, but are a court to consider crime. The U.S. government and it courts are delegated no power, or have no jurisdiction, over sin.

    The U.S. government is delegated no power over “citizens”, Freedom and Rights. As of 1776, and secured forevermore by the 1787 Constitution. U.S. citizens were free to do whatever they want to do. However, the States retained the power to enact laws against citizens intentionally doing harm. Citizens retained the Right and power to elect every Lawmaker in the country and to serve on citizen juries.

    Citizen Jurors have the Right and power to forbid the court unjustly punishing the criminally accused fellow citizen. The Constitution outlawed burning people at the stake, or otherwise punishing people, for their sins.

    Citizen Voters have the exclusive Right and power to elect every lawmaker in the country and also the exclusive Right and power to elect Representatives to the House in Congress every two years (Article I, Section 2, clause 1). Constitutionally Representatives are the only federal Officials citizen’s vote elect.

    However, voters are constitutionally restricted to electing Lawmakers to do only one thing and that one thing is take, or affirm, an Oath (Article VI, clause 3). That Oath is required by the Constitution and citizen have no method to change, or amend the Constitution (Article V). There goes democracy, bye bye forever.

    An Official exercising a power not delegated to them by the Constitution (Amendment X) commits the crime of usurpation. The time in office for a federal usurper is very short without the complicity of the House in Congress. Criminal Representatives cannot in office without the complicity of voters.

    Sorry for the length of this reply and hope I didn’t make too many mistakes.

    Reply
  6. Mark
    Mark says:

    Allan,

    I think you’re missing a few things. First of all, the 14th amendment gave Congress the right to secure rights for all citizens, so, while in 1787 that may not have been true, in 1887, it was.

    Second, sin falls under that category of “sincerely held religious beliefs”, the Supreme Court has generally upheld that freedom of religion means that the government cannot force someone to violate their sincerely held religious beliefs without a compelling reason. There have been various incarnations of how this legal standard is applied, but in this case, the College is saying that forcing them to fund abortions is just that, and there is not a compelling reason for the government to do that.

    On the other hand, it is also important to consider freedom of conscience. In fact, the draft of the first amendment had a clause protecting freedom of conscience and that was stricken in the final draft. One could argue that freedom of conscience is not a right protected by the Constitution. My conscience, for example, might preclude me from funding organizations within the government that seize land without due process, or that manipulate and overthrow foreign governments, or that fly our citizens over to foreign countries so that they can be tortured and murdered for whatever information they may be able to provide.

    That said, without some sort of drastic change to the culture of our nation, the vocal minority will override the rights of the majority. Doctors will be forced to provide abortions and participate in assisted suicide. Teachers will be forced to teach that gender and marriage are whatever people decide it is. Government employees will be forced to spy on citizens without warrant and unjustly twist laws and regulations to serve the political aspirations of their superiors.

    Reply
  7. Allan Hampton
    Allan Hampton says:

    Mark,

    We have a different understanding of the 14th, (Ratified July 9, 1868). The 14th stood pretty much as written until the SC decision in Brown v. Board of Education (17 May 1954), which said in affect Congress could enact civil rights laws. That decision was not based on the Constitution or the 14th, but was base on the need of society. How about that? a direct violation of Article V.

    If not on the wording of the 14th then on the code under it renders the code and the 14th unconstitutional. civil rights are unconstitutional at any rate by being granted by government rendering them privileges, not Rights at all.

    The original Constitution delegates the federal government no power regarding Citizens, Freedom, and Rights.

    The federal government is by the Constitution forbidden to make a religious law. The SC is also forbidden to make any law at all, and like the federal government cannot change, or amend, the Constitution; Article V.

    The federal government is delegated no power by the original Constitution regarding abortion, see Amendment X.

    Federal taxes on citizens is unconstitutional. Article I, Section 8, Clause 1. The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises,

    The federal government is delegated no power regarding education.

    If citizens want a Constitutional government and everything under the original Constitution then citizen must quit reelecting elected Officials that have dishonored the Constitution’s Oath of office, especially 435 Incumbent Representatives in the House of Congress.

    Reply
    • Ralph Howarth
      Ralph Howarth says:

      In response also to Mark, and not to disparage anything on the rights of conscience, which was a right presumed to be protected by state constitutional bill of rights already in existence at the time the federal 1787 constitution was written, the 14th Amendment has to be interpreted under the context of the Common Law because the constitutions are Common Law basis documents. The federal constitution has meaning behind those words it uses such as “Welfare” meaning “happiness”, “Marque” meaning “charter”, and “Law of Nations” meaning “international law”.

      The 14th Amendment uses a Common Law term “Equal Protection” that means “the procedural courtroom right to sue somebody.” This is a corollary to the Common Law term of “Due Process” which is the “rights to defend yourself in court.” Collectively, these are the original “civil rights”. Back then there were instead Natural Rights and Citizen Rights. But today the term “Civil Rights” has been tossed around beyond anything in the courtroom to out in the real world.

      The 14th Amendment actually did not change much of anything other than two specific issues:
      It granted the federal courts to be able to inspect whether or not a state’s own law was bring applied equally to all state citizens. This did not give the federal government authority to question a state’s law itself, only to question that in practice a state law indeed protects all of the state’s own citizens. And it codified that people born in the U.S. who are not foreign subjects to be natural born citizens. How courts have come to twist the origination of the 14th amendment to mean things that it does not is a whole other affair.

      Reply
  8. Brian
    Brian says:

    Allan and Mark,

    Both of you make excellent points in relation to the legal and constitutional issues that ADF is defending. Perhaps neither of you were responding to my post, however, Mark’s conclusion gives me a chance to restate my point in a more direct way.

    Mark said, “Doctors will be forced to provide abortions and participate in assisted suicide. Teachers will be forced to teach that gender and marriage are whatever people decide it is.” While I agree these laws are coming more and more, I respectfully disagree in another sense. No one can be “forced” to go against his or her own conscience whether the law of any nation supports them or not. I agree Mark, that the law may demand that doctors and teachers and business people must do this or that. This is the direction of our culture as it manipulates the constitution from former interpretations. But, it the final analysis, the constitution and its amendments, the bill of rights, state laws, judicial precedence etc. are the laws of men. Mens laws are to be obeyed until they call for us to violate God’s law. Men’s laws are temporal and pertain to this life only. God’s law and grace are eternal.

    The two most pertinent passages in the Bible that address these issues are Romans 13:1-7 and the incident leading up to Acts 5:29. The balance between these principles calls for wisdom on our part; wisdom that only God can provide in His Word. Therefore, we must as David implies – determine beforehand to follow Christ at all cost, no matter where the culture turns.

    We also know from scripture that at some point in history there will be a universal “falling away.” In Matthew 24 the analogy is made to a woman in labor in the context of the end of the age. The contractions get more intense and more frequent before the end. I am not saying we are there yet, but we may be getting close. Therefore, we should be watchful and prepare. Biblical preparation calls us to repent of our sin and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. His claims over us as our Creator are sure. His grace to us in providing a Way of reconciliation with God is profound beyond words.

    Reply

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