The Power of Civil Disobedience

Religious employers should defy the health care provision requiring them to violate their beliefs and provide birth control to employees.

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Last year's Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M, has been accused of accepting a "five-figure sum" in exchange for spending a few hours autographing football memorabilia. In the messed-up world of college athletics, this constitutes a scandal that could make him ineligible to play next season. That's because according to the governing body for college sports, the NCAA, student athletes are prohibited from making money off their own names, talent and accomplishments.

So Manziel may have broken the NCAA's rule on amateurism. Nearly everyone understands the rule epitomizes an unjust system in which schools and other peripheral organizations (like the committees that host the college football bowls at the end of the season) can get rich off the labor of athletes, while the athletes themselves cannot accept so much as a free tattoo. The latest accusations provoked Bleacher Report's Dan Levy to pen a column decrying the state of affairs and calling the rule "borderline criminal." Yet at the end of the column, he makes a curious pronouncement: "Still, the best way to get a rule changed is never to break it first," he wrote.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

In this particular case, he may have a point. Only in getting caught is Manziel sparking a conversation that could lead to change. His alleged intention, to quietly accept payment in violation of the rule, would have done nothing to bring about its end. But in many cases, breaking a rule and showing it can be done without the world crumbling is in fact the very thing that hastens the death of an injustice.

Time after time during the civil rights movement, activists flagrantly broke the rules. They marched where they weren't supposed to, sat at lunch counters and on buses where they weren't supposed to, used "white-only" facilities when they weren't supposed to. Soon enough, the segregationists and Klansmen found their actions legally in the wrong. Public attitudes had evolved in response to the protests, and the rule of law had changed with them.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Catholic contraception controversy.]

Today, scores of hospitals, charities, schools and businesses run by religious persons and organizations face the choice of whether to obey an unjust law or break it in the pursuit of change. The rule in question is the Health and Human Services mandate, a requirement that all employers pay for contraceptives, abortifacients and sterilization procedures as part of their health insurance plans. It is a ghastly offense against religious liberty and freedom of conscience. Last Thursday, on the date the mandate was originally set to go into effect even for religious-based organizations with severe moral objections to the law's requirements, some 200 members of the group Women Speak for Themselves gathered across the street from the White House to protest it.

Like the activists of the civil rights movement who came before, these women were exercising their right to petition the government for the redress of a grievance. And like the many men and women who spent long nights in jails in places like Birmingham, Ala., the employers in question – especially those affiliated with the Catholic Church – must refuse to comply with any mandate that forces them to violate their beliefs. To quote the great St. Augustine of Hippo, an unjust law is no law at all. Contrary to Bleacher Report's Levy, breaking a rule often is the first step to changing it.

Civil disobedience is an unmatched tool in the hands of a free people. It's time for Americans to take it up again.

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