When acts of conscience defy the law

United States citizens are providing sanctuary for illegal aliens from Central America. College students are refusing to register for the military draft. Families are allowing mechanical life-support systems to be withdrawn from infants with serious birth defects. Protesters are blocking operations at a nuclear plant.

All these are acts of conscience - but, in most cases, also unlawful activities. And they're situations that present serious problems for politicians , law enforcement, churches, and a democratic society.

Civil disobedience - the act of defying the law for reasons of conscience - has been a sticky issue from time immemorial. It invites thorny questions: Can protests, no matter how admirable the cause, be justified when they involve lawless activity? Should punishment be set aside if the wrongdoer is motivated by a ''righteous'' motive? Does individual action stemming from ethical or even religious convictions transcend civil law?

One must start with certain premises: (1) Lawlessness cannot be rationalized. Individuals can't be allowed to obey ''good'' laws and disregard ''bad'' laws, as they choose; (2) those who willfully break the law - even out of conscience - must be ready to accept the consequences; (3) administrators of the law should take into consideration motives - and use the twin yardsticks of principle and compassion in assessing penalties.

In biblical times, civil disobedience was usually punished by imprisonment or death. Daniel prayed to his God, disregarding a royal decree. He was thrown to the lions - but his deep trust in his own beliefs saved him. Daniel's actions were open, not clandestine. He did not flout the law to embarrass the king. He clung to his own convictions as a matter of conscience - not in defiance but out of commitment. The monarch saw the light. He nullified his decree.

There is a significant lesson here. Moral courage must underlie courage of conviction. If a law is bad, or unjust, the protester must do more than rationalize that it is permissible to disobey it. He must first work through the system to change the offending ordinance. Failing this, he may decide to engage in an act of civil disobedience in a peaceful and orderly manner - but mindful of the possible consequences.

Hunger strikes by Mohandas Gandhi were a form of protest that drew attention to a cause but didn't disrupt others' lives. A silent peace vigil on a university campus spotlights an antiwar stance without causing civil disruption. Sit-ins around nuclear plants, however, or blocking of access to businesses and research centers that produce or design armaments do implicate others. The rights of the protesters must be weighed against the rights of others.

The alien-sanctuary situation presents a real challenge for achieving justice. Church groups in a dozen or more cities are providing sanctuary to aliens fleeing Central American dictatorships. And they say they are doing it as a matter of conscience. But here US policy and the letter of the law are pitted against the religious and ethical convictions of certain citizens. Church representatives who have provided refuge to illegal aliens from El Salvador and elsewhere in Central America say deportation to homelands would result in persecution, torture, or even death. They defend their disobedience of the law as humanitarian and in line with the scriptural command to reach out to the needy and suffering.

Government spokesmen, however, insist that the sanctuary movement is aimed at undermining the administration's political stance in Latin America. They stress that violation of the law, for whatever reason, must be dealt with to maintain an ordered society.

So far, however, prosecution of lawbreakers has been selective. For example, a Texas woman - who became something of a symbol of the clash between government alien policy and the church sanctuary movement - was brought to trial and convicted of transporting three Salvadoreans who had entered the country illegally. But her sentence was suspended.

The resolution of this case seems fair. In making his determination, the judge tempered the rule of law with understanding and compassion. ''I know you are a person of high principle,'' he told the defendant, ''but violating the law is not the way to go.''

We agree. James Sellers, an editor-at-large of the Christian Century, put it well: ''True civil disobedience seeks to rewrite bad laws and make new ones.''

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