Last week’s congressional tussle over defunding Planned Parenthood demonstrates that national deliberation on controversial moral debates is far from over. While federal funding of abortion is currently in the media spotlight, a new fight is being waged in the culture war over individuals’ right of conscience.

As new Heritage research from Visiting Fellow Thomas Messner points out, increasing government overreach through regulations and nondiscrimination policies poses serious threats to citizens’ conscience rights and religious liberty. From health care to institutional religious freedom to legalizing same-sex marriage, threats to conscience rights are emerging in many sectors of society.

In Washington state, for example, a state regulation may force a family-owned pharmacy to choose between closing its doors and selling an abortion-inducing emergency contraceptive in violation of the store owners’ pro-life beliefs.

Likewise, enforcement of nondiscrimination policies to prohibit exclusive hiring of people within a religion has threatened a parachurch organization’s ability to maintain its institutional character and identity.

Legalizing same-sex marriage and enforcing sexual orientation nondiscrimination policies are also posing serious legal threats to individuals and private companies that adhere to a traditional view of marriage. In both New Mexico and Illinois, family-owned businesses have already faced civil liability under sexual orientation nondiscrimination laws for declining to provide their services for same-sex civil union ceremonies.

In many of these instances, direct government regulation or condition-based funding has punished individuals and institutions for adhering to their moral and religious beliefs. Instead of protecting individual liberty and allowing robust civil debate about controversial issues, the government has become increasingly intrusive in society’s moral deliberations.

As Messner explains:

[G]overnment overreach raises the stakes of moral discourse and encourages intolerance on the part of private citizens. When civil liability or equal access to government benefits depends on private citizens adopting the “official” state position on controversial moral issues, the potential for infringement of religious liberty and rights of conscience is clear.

Recent developments in federal policy have demonstrated the risk posed by increased government encroachment on personal liberty. Both the weak conscience protections in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) and the Obama Administration’s decision to partially rescind federal conscience regulations have placed the rights of doctors, pharmacists, and hospitals in jeopardy. Recognizing the importance of personal liberty to civil society, policymakers have begun to propose measures to strengthen conscience protections.

The Respect for the Rights of Conscience Act of 2011, introduced by Representative Jeff Fortenberry (R–NE), seeks to rectify the weak conscience protections in the PPACA and ensure that federal law respects the rights and beliefs of medical professionals. Likewise, Representative John Fleming (R–LA) has introduced the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act of 2011, which would prevent the federal government or any federally funded state and local government from discriminating against medical professionals and health care institutions that decline to provide abortion-related services. Recent efforts to codify numerous pro-life and conscience protection riders in permanent federal law are also aimed at securing the liberty of health care professionals.

As a tide of social pluralism continues to rise and moral consensus wanes, policymakers should consider the challenges to moral and religious liberty. Where government intervenes through regulation or funding provisions, policymakers should recognize the value of religious freedom to civil society and work to protect and promote citizens’ right of conscience.

To keep track of developments on issues like these, subscribe to the Richard and Helen DeVos Center’s weekly Culture Watch.

Co-Authored by Raul Tamez