Freedom of Religion - Religious Freedom - Religious Liberty

Although these terms are widely embraced as a concept across the political spectrum, today they are largely visible in a (primarily conservative) view that religion is under assault by secular forces. In this view, religious liberty needs to be forcefully championed to prevent religion from being undermined and forced to compromise key beliefs. By contrast, others see religious liberty used as a mask for intolerance and a desire to impose (or declare as “American”) the Christian religion in an increasingly diverse American society.     

Although contraception and abortion have been arenas for this disagreement to arise, the debate over LGBTQ rights has brought the dichotomy center stage. To many in the LGBTQ community, a cry for religious freedom is no more than the privileging of one freedom (religious) over another (civil) at the expense of the people the law is designed to protect. To religious conservatives, however, they are defending what they experience as legitimate differences in worldviews reflected in theology and worship.  

Like other constitutional issues, different understandings of the phrase “religious freedom” hearken back to contrasting interpretations of the founding documents themselves. In this case, there are diverging views of the religious liberty clauses of the first amendment to the Constitution of the United States: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Simply stated, the “establishment clause” protects against religion’s intrusion into government, and the “free exercise” clause protects against government’s intrusion into religion.

 On one hand, liberals tend to emphasize the implications of this language that there should be a strict separation of Church and State, and that the influence of religion, especially of a dominant faith, should be eliminated from any government-sponsored institution or forum, including public schools. Hence the typical liberal opposition to prayers in schools. On the other hand, conservatives tend to emphasize the importance of not prohibiting the free exercise of religion - even in government affiliated settings - so long as there is no government establishment of religion. They point to the precedent set by the founders of the Constitution, who for the most part viewed our democratic form of government as depending on a moral citizenry, and the source of that morality being religion. Hence the typical conservative support of religious expression in schools.

In the developed world, women tend to be more religious than men. Because of this and other factors, some women of faith are trying to reframe the discussion of religious liberty as a women’s rights issue.  Their claim is that any attempt to silence or sideline religious voices and perspectives in the public sphere is really just another way to try and silence or sideline women.

Still others claim that the only way to truly promote religious liberty is to acknowledge the fact that the religious people of America speak with many voices. Those with this view point out that religious Americans follow many different religions, and that there are many religious people on the liberal side of the political spectrum. From this perspective, arguments for religious freedom can be made on bothsides of every moral issue, from LGBTQ rights to abortion to the death penalty. In this view, the term “religious liberty” has been illegitimately co-opted to promote only one (typically conservative) political view. This is seen as a distortion of the term’s original meaning, a distortion created to advance a political position that is in fact morally abhorrent to some religious people. In that sense “religious liberty” has been used, paradoxically, to stamp out the very thing it claims to promote.

QUESTIONS TO PLAY WITH:  

-How much religious freedom do you think there is in the United States? What leads you to say that?

-Ask someone you know who belongs to a different religion the question above. How are your answers the same and different?

-How many religions can you find in your family, friends, and acquaintances? What do you think the spread of opinions would be if you asked each of them what they thought the term meant?

-If the U. S. was transformed into a utopia, what would religious freedom be like in it?

Contributors: 

Erika Decaster, Cynthia Kurtz

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