Religious Leaders Warn of Civil Disobedience

They are calling it the Manhattan Declaration, a 4,700-word manifesto reaching into scripture and signed by 148 Orthodox, Catholic, and evangelical leaders. It was released this afternoon at a press conference in Washington, D.C., and is designed to draw a line in the sand across three issues they argue are non-negotiable despite the law: the sanctity of human life, the institution of marriage as being between a man and woman, and religious freedom.

Signers of the Declaration pledge to "...not comply with any edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide and euthanasia, or any other anti-life act,” nor will signers “bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships” or “treat them as marriages.” The list of backers reads like a who’s who of the pro-life movement, and the document essentially argues that supporters of the movement deserve conscience rights.

What does noncompliance look like? Nonviolent civil disobedience. "Dr. King was very clear about nonviolence and we are committed to nonviolence,” said Robert George, drafting committee member and jurisprudence professor at Princeton University. He listed some examples of what religious civil disobedience might look like, such as a pharmacist quitting before providing abortion drugs or a physician changing jobs before performing an abortion or taking part in an assisted suicide. “There are limits to what can be asked of people,” said George, who was flanked by 15 religious leaders, including the Archdioceses of Washington and Philadelphia and evangelical leaders like Chuck Colson and Tony Perkins.

Addressed not only to Christians, but to President Obama, Congress, and civil authorities, the treatise will be available online for individuals to sign as well. When asked whether nonpayment of taxes would be an acceptable form of protest, George, who is also a lawyer, said he was currently representing a West Virginia taxpayer who is refusing to pay the small percentage of her bill that might go toward state-funded abortions (“Litigation is still pending,” said George). Institutions were also called on to participate in the civil disobedience if, for example, if a Catholic hospital is under pressure to provide services that go against Catholic beliefs. Although conscience protections do exist for many institutions already, there are areas, cited on Friday, such as when the Catholic Charities of Boston halted adoption services, rather than comply with state law and allow children to be adopted by homosexual couples.  

According to the Declaration, “We must be willing to defend, even at risk and cost to ourselves and our institutions, the lives of our brothers and sisters at every stage of development and in every condition.” Yet similar documents, such as last year’s Evangelical Manifesto, have been unveiled with great fanfare but little consequence. Civil disobedience, especially giving up a job, is a lot to ask in the current economy and is a hard notion, even for some signers of the Declaration.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council tells NEWSWEEK the point of the Declaration is really to avoid mistakes of the past, such as when religious leaders did not stand up early enough against no-fault divorce, which he says led directly to the breakup of families and high divorce rates. “I’m a former police officer, and I have hard time with civil disobedience, but if it comes to the point where our religious liberty is at risk, I’d not only participate but would encourage people to resist.”