Pope Francis said government workers have a "human right" to refuse to perform their duty if they have a "conscientious objection" to it, Reuters reported.
The pope was responding to reporters' questions about whether he supported individuals who refused to abide by laws or discharge their duties — such as issuing same-sex marriage licenses — because of their personal conscience.
The question appeared to address the recent controversy around Kentucky clerk Kim Davis, who refused to issue marriage licenses after a Supreme Court ruling made same-sex marriage a right across the nation. Davis, who said that issuing the licenses would "violate her conscience" owing to her religious beliefs, was jailed briefly for contempt.
Speaking to reporters aboard the papal plane on his way back to Rome from the U.S., the pope said, "Conscientious objection must enter into every juridical structure because it is a right."
Without directly alluding to the Davis case, the pope said in Italian, "I can't have in mind all cases that can exist about conscientious objection but, yes, I can say that conscientious objection is a right that is a part of every human right."
He added that if "someone does not allow others to be a conscientious objector, he denies a right."
He said that by denying some rights over others, "we would end up in a situation where we select what is a right, saying: 'This right has merit, this one does not.'"
During his first trip to the U.S., the pope did not directly address the issue of same-sex marriage, although he expressed his concerns about the institution of family, "which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without."
In his historic speech to Congress, the pope said, "Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family."