The Case for Reclaiming Religious Freedom


The right has had a knack of taking over terms that used to be the common possession of all or most people. The flag and patriotism, Jesus and God, and even the phrase “Merry Christmas” are now indicators of where you stand in the culture wars that have dominated our political life for decades. In some ways, as a liberal protestant pastor, I see one of my tasks as reclaiming words. It’s not just a political move though. It’s the recognition that these words can open up a treasure trove of ideas and resources that are important to relate to if we would have a better world.

We’re threatened with the loss of another word: religious freedom. The idea of religious freedom is a wholly liberal idea. I was reminded of that recently listening to “Christian radio” as the speaker went off on how Muslims and atheists should not be included in our first amendment protections. In my brief time in Oklahoma I’ve discovered that I had been in a liberal bubble and that such sentiments are more common then I realized.

So when I say religious freedom is a liberal idea, I mean that both in the political sense of the term as we understand it today as well as in a broader philosophical sense. Liberalism is predicated on the idea that there are many forms of life, religions, cultural sensibilities, and a good society is one which provides the space for people to live them out to the degree that it is possible to do so. The First Amendment is an expression of that ideal.

Unfortunately the religious right has claimed the word religious freedom for very different ends. The Hobby Lobby case made the most news, recently. This case was heralded by the right as a win for religious freedom but instead the supreme court sided with the right of corporations to determine the health care options that employees have. The conscience of employees was overridden by their employer.

There have also been a number of freedom to discriminate bills in state legislatures which would target discrimination against gay, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people. Now most states already allow it in the private sector. But these measures went an extra step. In Idaho, doctors, hospitals, emergency first responders could deny service to patients based on sexual orientation. In Kansas, public agencies could do likewise. Thankfully most of these bills failed to become law.

What these efforts have in common is, that in the name of religious freedom, the freedom of others are infringed upon. In the Hobby Lobby case, it was employees. In the right to discriminate bills, real harm was proposed against lgbt people. The old axiom still is relevant here; your freedom extends only so far as you do not infringe on others freedom. Freedom is not simply a term by which the powerful have their say over the powerless. It is a relative term that insures that all people can live their lives as they choose. Relative, in this case refers to the efforts to balance out rights and freedoms so that the greatest number of people can enjoy them.

Now religious freedom is a genuine concern and real infringements happen here and around the world. I plan to highlight one such case here in the US. But the problem is this; because the term, “religious freedom”, is used by the religious right for most of their policy goals, liberals may be tempted simply roll there eyes and not be alarmed when real religious freedom is at stake. That is, the term,  is about to be appropriated by the right. And in that, a genuine concern is about to be sidelined.

The United Church of Christ, one the largest liberal protestant denominations in the US,  is suing the state of North Carolina over their gay marriage ban. On the one hand, many of my friends, expressed a bit of glee at the cleverness of the reversal. Many conservative churches embraced gay marriage bans because of their faith and even trotted out the religious freedom argument. Now a liberal church was doing likewise.

But if that was the basis of the lawsuit it wouldn’t stand.  Simply because I agree or disagree with a policy, is not a sufficient basis for determining if it is violating the first amendment. As a Christian I support aid to the refugee children of Central America. That is a reflection of my values as grounded in my faith. But if the state helped those children, that would not be because the state chose my religion over some other religion. There have been states that have attempted to ban abortions which certainly is part and parcel of the religious values of those seeking such bans. There may be good reasons to oppose such efforts. But it is not because the first amendment was violated.

Presumably in both cases, there are secular reasons one could opt for this policy or a different one. I’m not sure they hold up, when it comes to gay marriage bans, but I grant that it is possible. It certainly reflects certain values that are invariably apart of any legislation. So the mere existence of the gay marriage ban in North Carolina, as egregious as it is, is not a violation of  first amendment. Passing laws that reflect a certain set of values by themselves is not a violation either.

Rather the gay marriages bans are being struck down because they go against the 14th amendment, granting equal protection for all people. And these bans are failing because they are a stark case of not allowing people to live the lives they would choose to lead.  Marriage is so much wrapped up in who we are as individuals that a liberal society shouldn’t tolerate such bans.

The case of North Carolina though is different. This is the statute in question. “No minister, officer, or any other person authorized to solemnize a marriage under the laws of this State shall perform a ceremony of marriage between a man and woman, or shall declare them to be husband and wife, until there is delivered to that person a license for the marriage of the said persons,” § 51-7. Couple this with Amendment 1,  and any attempt by clergy to marry same sex couples is a criminal offense. There are a few states who face the same conundrum in how their laws are written in that they penalize clergy. They regulate what individual churches and clergy can do, in this case, one of the central rites of the church. The religious freedom argument here is justified.

But it’s intriguing to see how religious right organizations responded.

Tony Perkins from the Family Research Council, a spin off from James Dobson’s Focus on the Family makes it clear that his concern for religious freedom is not the freedom for all churches but only ones that shares his views: “I would use that term ‘Christian’ loosely. That title is — let’s talk biblical, here’s the deal, it’s like with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that we worked on in Mississippi and failed in Arizona and other places, here’s a test of what is a true religious freedom, a freedom that’s based on orthodox religious viewpoints. It has to have a track record, it has to come forth from religious orthodoxy.” As a side note, most of gay discrimination bills hitting state legislatures comes from model legislation developed by the Family Research Council.

Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the North Carolina Values Coalition had this to say: “It’s both ironic and sad that an entire religious denomination and its clergy who purport holding to Christian teachings on marriage would look to the courts to justify their errant beliefs. These individuals are simply revisionists that distort the teaching of Scripture to justify sexual revolution, not marital sanctity.” 

The religious freedom argument advanced by many on the religious right is a ruse. It applies only to those organizations who share their views. In a clear case where clergy could be made criminals under the law, no arguments are made to defend such clergy nor is there any particular concern about religious freedom in this case. But liberals should not do the same. That is, whether we agree or not with the religion in question protecting religious freedom should be important to us and fought for. The basic principle of what kind of society we want is at stake.

The threats to such freedom are real. In the US, it tends to be religious minorities that face them, including atheists and agnostics. Our laws still have not caught up to grant equal protection for the latter group. Around the world we are witnessing the rise of both antisemitism and anti Muslim sentiments and this finds itself  into laws which target everything from the construction of religious centers to wearing the hijab and other religious items or clothing.

There are some good groups, though, fighting for religious freedom that are worth supporting. The American Civil Liberties Union are in the front lines in the US as well as the Joint Baptist Committee on Religious Freedom. Around the world Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are good places to connect on religious freedom issues. But I would love for others to contribute names of organizations they find helpful in fighting for religious freedom for all people here and abroad. It could prove useful for myself and others. Thanks!

Dwight Welch is the new pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma

12 replies »

  1. Thank you for so clearly expressing a common theme in my discussions with people who want religious freedom, but also don’t think that comparative religion classes should be taught, and who freaked out that a nondenominational prayer group at the school decided to read passages in the Qur’an during Ramadan.

    I agree that we need to take back the phrase from the Right. They seem to be misunderstanding it and misusing it in a way that amounts to word abuse. Is there an agency with the mission of protecting words and phrases from abusers?
    /pulling my tongue out of my cheek 😉

  2. Can I also have *purple* back? I don’t mind progressives using it as an identifier, but it’s unfortunate happenstance that it is made from red and blue, (which I would also like to wear without people trying to attach it to a political ideology) does not mean that it should be used as a pejorative by people on the right, just because a Republican lost as election.

    I have had several classmates tell me that wearing red, blue and blue a lot, makes it hard for them to pin down my political leanings. I tried not to laugh the first time, but by the second I couldn’t help myself. Ironically, one of our school colors is blue, and there is at least one club that printed the logo on red t-shirts, independent of the school, to wear to home team events. Sigh.

  3. Frankly, while I read the entire argument, it was lost when the author stated that the employees of Hobby Lobby lost their religious freedom when the courts sided with the company. How? The employees are still as free to purchase abortifacients now as they were before Obamacare. The difference is that the court merely said the company is not responsible for covering the costs. It seems to the author that religious freedom, at least in this case, is only possible at the expense of others. The reality is, the owners of Hobby Lobby are free to exercise their religion, and the employees are free to exercise theirs; no one at Hobby Lobby is constraining employees from buying abortifacients, they are just saying they will not pay for them.

  4. The compensation earned by employees is to be determined by the religious claims of the company in this case. Why shouldn’t pay also be so determined?

  5. Unfortunately, by criticizing the Hobby Lobby decision, the author criticizes the exact same selective enforcement of religious freedom that he criticizes. As Kelly accurately notes, Mr. Wright’s characterization of the opinion is simply wrong. Mr. Wright indicates that “the supreme court sided with the right of corporations to determine the health care options that employees have. The conscience of employees was overridden by their employer.” Both statements are false. Corporations cannot deny any “health care options” to their employees. The “conscience” of employees is in no way “overriden” by the decision.

    At issue is whether people (corporations are nothing more than associations of people) can be compelled, against their will, to subsidize the purchase of a product that they believe to be immoral. If the Free Exercise clause is to have meaning, it ought to be that people are not forced to subsidize the purchase of something that violates their conscience.

    Employees of Hobby Lobby, by contrast, have all of their freedoms intact. They are perfectly free to purchase whatever birth control products that they would like to buy. Their employer, by not subsidizing their purchases, are not inhibiting their freedoms. Freedom includes the right to buy something, it does not encompass the right to have someone else buy it for you.

    Mr. Wright, I would have gladly agreed with you about selective enforcement. Religious freedom should be just as robust for atheists and muslims as it is for Christians. The freedom of conscience for religious minorities must be protected under our Constitution. The United Church of Christ absolutely should be permitted to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies, even if the state does not recognize such unions. But unfortunately, by criticizing Hobby Lobby, you engaged in the exact same behavior that you criticized — which is supporting religious freedom only when it aligns with your worldview.

  6. What a profoundly scripturally (i.e Romans 14) and historically ignorant screed this is! Unintelligible and disingenuous! Liberty of conscience first crops as an ideological maxim with Luther, although neither Lutherans nor Calvinists practiced it consistently or faithfully. Where one begins to see a consistent practice of it is in Rhode Island, under Roger Williams, who got into a war of essays with New England’s John Mather in the 1640s and 1650s and to some extent, Pennsylvania. This is well before John Locke’s Two Treatises (1689), which essentially is a secularization of thought found in religious circles under a naturalist rubric.

    It is when secularist and liberal factions began to use an ingenious interpretation of the constitutional principle to pursue a French policy of laicite, which excludes those with theistic perspectives from fair representation in the public realm, ultimately through the judiciary (thereby a “taxation without representation”), while expanding the size of that public realm, that we see a withdrawal of support for Kennedyesque versions of separation of church and state.

    An individual as employer, whether having some and the same legal protections under incorporation or not, ought not to be indentured servant of any old customer or employer, which is what you are advocating. At the same time, it ought to be certain that it is liberty of conscience is being violated. For a Christian not to sell a cake to a homosexual is one thing. For a Christian not to have to inscribe writing that he/she finds an offensive both ideologically and ethically is another. This latter should be protected, at a minimum. To do otherwise is to violate the very essence of being an American as an idea, let alone fidelity to Christian Scriptures.

  7. A few comments come to mind. Concretely, the employees are not “free” to purchase birth control. Some forms of them are simply beyond the price ability of most employees. If freedom is effective power, Hobby Lobby cut that off at the pass. I also go back to my original response. If companies can determine the nature of your health care compensation to fit with their religious concerns, why should they, not in principal, determine how your wage compensation is also spent? Otherwise it may be possible that the employee could spend it on things the company objects to. And somewhere down the line that means the company is paying for it. Lastly the comments about corporations as indentured servants struck me because I’m wondering if under that reasoning any laws, minimum wage, overtime, the family and medical leave act would also qualify as indentured servitude? Historically corporations were created under a set of conditions, requirements that they had to fulfill. I’d recommend this site for more history.

  8. “The basic principle of what kind of society we want is at stake.”

    Some people feel a little differently. They are not as concerned about what they want, as they are in “Thy will be done”. They really believe the words: “In God we trust.”

    Oh, to be sure, in a democratic society “under the sun” (a term used repeatedly in Ecclesiastes), it all makes sense. You have rights, we have rights, why shouldn’t you fight for what YOU believe in. After all, nobody else will fight for you. Life is short, fight for your rights!

    From such people, you hear all the time: “Love your neighbor as yourself”. And: “Do unto others as you would have them do onto you.” In fact, I once asked a well educated liberal, “What is the greatest commandment in scripture?” and that is how he replied.

    It comes as a shock to the liberal who does not read the Bible that love for others is not the greatest commandment. Here is it: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”

    That is not a suggestion. And when people start loving the Lord God with all their mind, perhaps they will spend a little less time being concerned about what they want, and a little more time being preoccupied with what God wants. Love for others has it’s place – after first loving God, and loving what He loves, that will guide us in how we love others.

    • I think you’re making a distinction which is not appropriate. The idea that you can love God and not other people, or that somehow these are two separate categories, that one can prioritize is not found in scripture, including the passage your citing. Your liberal friend answered correctly, love your neighbor as yourself and love of God are the two greatest commandments. Or as 1 John indicated “We love, because He first loved us. If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also.”

    • As a side note, most of the writers for Approaching Justice do believe in God and do read scripture and also prize a liberal democratic society. It’s the latter that you seem to take issue with?

  9. Great article. I literally break into a sweat when I hear “religious freedom” in my Mormon circle. It is invariably followed by a discussion of how our basic religious freedoms are being threatened by rampant liberalism. My mother, a religious freedom advocate, was recently warning of the inevitable societal breakdown should gay marriage be legalized. The thing is, we live in Canada. Gay marriage has been legal here for years. She didn’t even know or more importantly, notice. It clearly has not ruined her life (or our country) enough for her to even take note. So has the knowledge of it’s longtime (unnoticed) existience changed her point of view? Sadly, no. She still feels it has jeopardized her “religious freedom.” I’m sorry but, how?

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