4 Myths About Religious Freedom

Every 16th of January is Religious Freedom Day in the United States of America. All Americans claim to support religious freedom, but there is a great deal of debate about what this liberty actually means — especially around the contentious issues of gay marriage and transgender accommodations.

Religious Freedom Day commemorates the Virginia General Assembly's adoption of Thomas Jefferson's Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom on January 16, 1786. This statute removed the privileged position of the Church of England in Virginia, and set a precedent for the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

That amendment, which guaranteed religious freedom for all Americans, did so both positively and negatively. "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," the text declares. This means the United States government will have no established religion — no official church which collects religious taxes or requires compulsory attendance. It also means the federal government cannot prohibit the "free exercise" of religion, which is just as important.

On this basis, I will tackle four myths about what religious freedom means, explaining why people think them and why they are wrong.

1. It really just means freedom of worship.

President Barack Obama and then-secretary of State Hillary Clinton worried many on the right when they started substituting the limited phrase "freedom of worship" for the broader "freedom of religion." This is no mere nit-picky difference. Freedom of worship refers only to the ability to practice worship in private settings like homes and churches, while freedom of religion extends to all of life.

In 2012, Alliance Defending Freedom's Gary McCaleb pointed out that One Colorado, a gay-rights group, was trying to amend the Colorado state Constitution's definition of religious freedom. Here's the language:

In assessing whether government has burdened freedom of religion, a person’s or a religious organization’s right to act in a manner motivated by a sincerely held religious belief is the ability to engage in religious practices in the privacy of a person’s home or in the privacy of a religious organization’s established place of worship.

Limiting religious freedom to "the privacy of a person's home" or "a religious organization's established place of worship" arguably violates the First Amendment's "free exercise" clause. It would mean street preaching, Christmas caroling, and all sorts of public witnesses of faith fall outside of the meaning of religious freedom.

No, freedom of religion is more than freedom of worship. Even Obama's administration — and the 2016 Democrat Party platform itself! — showed signs of understanding this, eventually.