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.
2. It’s about “freedom from religion.”
Every Christmastime, secularist groups oppose public displays of Christmas. Last year, the ACLU of Indiana forced the town of Knightstown to remove a cross atop its Christmas tree, because seeing it allegedly did a local man “irreparable harm.” A school in Texas actually forced a staffer to remove a “Charlie Brown Christmas” poster from her door, in the name of “separation of church and state.” In a similar vein, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation attacked the “unchecked Christian extremism” of an Air Force Academy coach’s sharing Bible verses on Twitter.
But contrary to the opinion of secular groups, Americans are not guaranteed the freedom to never hear about religion. The “separation of church and state” refers to the First Amendment’s ban on “established” religion, not a ban on public displays of belief. Those displays are protected by the “free exercise” of religion, which the Founders specified in addition to free speech.
Expressing one’s beliefs is protected by the Constitution. Secularists don’t have the freedom to silence the expression of religious believers. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and any other believers have the right to proclaim their faith — and secularists and atheists have the right to attack it as unreasonable. But none of them can silence the other.
Indeed, living by those beliefs also falls under the purview of religious freedom. Which is the reason behind yet another myth about the subject. Some falsely believe something else about religious freedom …
3. It’s a smokescreen for bigotry.
Many newspapers and organizations have started putting religious freedom in scare quotes. When news broke that Republicans would re-introduce the First Amendment Defense Act, the bill was referred to as a “religious freedom” bill. The insinuation is that such laws aim to justify discrimination against gay, lesbian, and transgender people under the false name of religious freedom.
In many cases across the country, business owners with a religious objection to homosexual marriage have nonetheless been fined, censored, or forced to participate in a ceremony they believe to be a perversion of a religious ceremony. As in the case of Oregon bakery owners Aaron and Melissa Klein, the assumed bigots gladly served LGBT people, they just objected to baking a wedding cake for a gay wedding.
Liberals attack situations like this as “discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation,” but disagreeing to participate in a public ceremony is an extension of free speech, not discrimination. The Kleins had a policy about wedding cakes — they viewed each cake as an expression of the relationship, and their baking it was a blessing on the marriage.
Because they believed marriage was between a man and a woman, they could not in good conscience bake a cake for the wedding of one woman to another woman. Thus, they were fined $175,000 — more than their life savings — and were forced to close their business.
Cases like these do not involve discrimination, but the desire to live and operate business by religious convictions. Similar situations arose when the Obama administration tried to force Hobby Lobby and the Catholic charity the Little Sisters of the Poor to pay for abortifacient contraception coverage. Thankfully, the Supreme Court upheld the owners’ rights to follow their conscience in business. Unfortunately, the same cannot yet be said of a Roman Catholic health teacher who lost her job for refusing to teach birth control.
Indeed, last year the state of Massachusetts released a guidance applying transgender “accommodation” rules to churches themselves. Thankfully, the state later reversed this ruling, but that does not change the fact that it occurred.
In such cases, religious believers are not using religious freedom as a cudgel to force others to abide by their beliefs, but as a last resort to protect their ability to live by their faith. This is why religious freedom is under attack, and why it needs to be defended. Nonetheless, the debates in America can obscure the truth, leading to another myth, that religious freedom is …
4. All about social issues.
Fundamentally, however, the biggest threats to religious freedom aren’t in the United States. The Islamic State (ISIS) is known for persecuting and even beheading members of religious minorities. A report about religious freedom in 2016 pointed to China, India, Russia, Iraq, Syria, and Nigeria as countries where people are targeted for their faith and unable to profess it, by varying degrees.
Terrifyingly, while persecution has always existed, “usually those doing the persecuting make some effort to try and hide their actions,” Isaac Six, advocacy director at International Christian Concern (ICC), explained. Now, “groups like ISIS and Boko Haram have completely defied this convention, brazenly admitting they are targeting Christians and other religious minorities while publishing slick, polished videos of executions and kidnapping victims.”
Issues of contraceptive mandates and business freedom seem trivial compared to life and death. While Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others in the West fight to live by their beliefs in the West, they cannot forget the struggles of the millions persecuted across the globe.
It is vital that America get religious freedom right, as the United States was intended to be a “shining city on a hill,” an example of the blessings of freedom to the world. While the threats to religious liberty are indeed more severe across the globe, America must get its own house in order.