I've been thinking about the moral status of of immoral laws more and more often recently. This is partly due to the state(s) I have lived in; I was born and grew up in the Irish Republic/Ireland/Éire/Eyah and have just relocated to the United Kingdom/Northern Ireland/Norn Iron/the Occupied Six Counties. In both cases, however, there is an increasing presence of laws that contradict basic moral imperatives. The litany of these is as familiar as it is depressing - civil unions (aka "gay marriage"), tax regimes that favour the single over the married, "no-fault" divorce, criminalising self-defence against an intruder in one's own home. The most egregious examples are of course abortion and euthanasia, both involving the deliberate killing of the innocent.
This is not, for Christians, a new situation in which to find themselves. Our faith had its genesis in a world that was hostile to its spiritual message, and enjoined practices that were wholly incompatible with its moral tenets. While St Paul was scrivening epistles, his highly civilised fellow Roman citizens were watching human beings kill each other for entertainment! Even so, and even as the Emperor blasphemously demanded recognition as a quasi divine authority, St Paul still enjoined obedience to him.
There has to be a limit, however. When civil authority demands that to which it is not entitled, how are we to respond? Obeying just laws in unproblematic. Dr Walter E. Williams of George Mason University offers a fairly broad guide to reacting in this circumstance, viz. "Decent people should not obey immoral laws." I don't think a careful and thoughtful scholar like Williams is advocating mere anarchy or a general free for all where individual moral insight trumps established legal standards but he does seem to be a little careless in how he puts things.
St Thomas Aquinas has a more nuanced account and one which I think serves the purpose better. We obey laws that uphold our own moral principles, e.g. prohibitions on theft and murder. We also obey laws governing indifferent matters, such as which side of the road to drive on or what deadline to observe when filing a tax return. When faced with a morally objectionable law, however, we must ask first will the harm done by accepting this ordinance outweigh the benefit obtained by respecting the general power of the state to govern? Thus Abraham Lincoln accepted slavery in the United States even as he objected to it morally. He sought to preserve the general benefit of a flawed constitution rather than countenance a complete overthrow of it. So muct we obey immoral laws? Sometimes we must.
When do we refuse then? We refuse to consider an immoral law binding in conscience IFF it enjoins a directly sinful act on us. Thus a law that, in yesteryear, would have forced me to receive communion from the Church of Ireland cannot bind and can only be disobeyed. Likewise a law that requires a contemporary citizen directly to acquiesce in abortion can only be disobeyed. That leaves the question of a state that so systematically demands such co-operation that its very legitimacy is called into question. St Thomas seems to be in two minds on this issue so it perhaps best left for another post.