What in the World is Religious Freedom?

November 1, 2019

Religious freedom is important for everyone, everywhere. Why? Because religion is important for everyone, everywhere. Human beings are innately religious. Our nature impels us to seek answers to profound questions about ultimate things. If we are not free to pursue those answers, and to live according to the truths we discover, we cannot live a fully human life.

Religious freedom is therefore the right of all persons to believe, speak, and act – individually and in community with others, in private and in public – in accord with their understanding of ultimate truth.

The American Founding to the Present

The American Founders understood the importance of religion for human, social, and political flourishing. That’s why they styled religious freedom – that is, the freedom of all to exercise religion – as the first freedom. They were convinced religious freedom was necessary for the well-being of citizens, for the common good, and for public virtue without which they believed the new Republic would fail. Their view might be accurately called free exercise equality.

Until a few years ago, the vast majority of Americans supported the Founders’ understanding of religious liberty. Consider, for example, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and International Religious Freedom Act. During the 1990s both passed with overwhelming, bipartisan support in Congress and were signed by President Clinton. Americans would sometimes disagree over how to apply religious freedom in particular cases, but they generally understood it to be our first freedom. With the Founders, they believed it to be a building block for all other fundamental freedoms, indispensable to the common good, and a source of protection for everyone.

Those days are gone.

In 2016 the chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, created by Congress to protect the civil rights of all Americans, issued the following statement[1]: “[t]he phrases ‘religious liberty’ and ‘religious freedom’ [are…] code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, [and] Christian supremacy….”

This dangerous view, which continues to spread, is highly destructive of the American commitment to freedom and equality and demands a sustained effort to recover the true meaning and value of religious freedom. In other words, it demands nothing short of the recovery and realization of free exercise equality, a core feature of the American constitutional settlement.

What is Religion?

Religion is, first and foremost, the human search for a greater-than-human source of being and ultimate meaning. “Religion is the effort of individuals and communities to understand, to express, and to seek harmony with a transcendent reality of such importance that they feel compelled to organize their lives around their understanding of it…” Most people by their nature seek answers to questions that seem to be in our DNA. For example, is there something or someone to which or to whom I owe my being? If so, how should I order my life in light of that discovery? Why is there suffering? Is there life after death? If so, does my behavior in this life affect my fate after death?

Second, most people who believe they have discovered religious truths join with others of like mind and spirit. Accordingly, although it is deeply personal, religion is also an organized, shared set of beliefs and practices that define a religious community, and which are lived and expressed in the public life of the society in which that community is situated.

What is Religious Freedom?

A Fundamental Right

Religious freedom is a fundamental right that is guaranteed in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. It is the equal right of all human beings and all religious communities to the free exercise of religion. Given its profound importance to the founding of America, and to human flourishing, it is a capacious right – i.e. universal, broad, and deep – though it is not absolute. The United States Constitution, and the legal foundation of any rightly ordered political community, carries a presumption in favor of religious freedom, and the government must bear the burden of overcoming that presumption.

An Individual Right

Religious liberty includes the right to believe, or not to believe, in religious truths. There is no hint of coercion in the American understanding of religious freedom, i.e. that one must believe. Coercion is alien to the American treatment of religion. If one does not believe, one’s rights are fully protected under the Constitution’s guarantee of free speech, expression, and assembly.

But if one does believe, such a person has the right to order his or her life in accord with religious truths, without undue coercion from any human agent, especially government, and to do so in community with others.

An Institutional Right

Religious liberty therefore includes the rights of churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and other houses of worship not only to exist, but also to flourish. Given the importance of religion in the founding, houses of worship have historically been given privileges, such as tax exemptions, that encourage their building and their growth.

Religious freedom also includes the right of individuals and communities to create and operate religious institutions such as homes for the poor, the aged, and the dying; medical clinics and hospitals; primary and secondary schools; colleges and universities; services for immigrants; soup kitchens; food pantries; adoption and foster care agencies; drug rehabilitation centers, and the like. Without such private religious institutions, which generally provide services for all of us, American civil society would be a mere shadow of what it is today.

Religious liberty also includes the rights of faith-based businesses to operate according to the fundamental beliefs of their owners. For-profit businesses are also subject to regulation by governments, and in recent years conflicts have arisen between the rights of customers and those of faith-based business owners.

These conflicts have raised several questions, especially whether such business owners should be coerced to provide their services to same-sex couples for their wedding ceremonies. In general, coercion should not be applied in such matters, particularly when the services sought are easily available from other businesses willing to provide them. Unfortunately, some state governments and political groups have sought to coerce such businesses into financial ruin or to demonize them as haters and bigots. Whatever one’s views on same-sex marriage, these methods are bad for religious freedom and bad for America.

A Private and Public Right

Finally, religious freedom includes the right of religious individuals, institutions, and communities to express religious truths in their private lives, and to bring those truths into political life through their respective claims about justice, peace, equality, and freedom, and to seek the agreement of their fellow citizens on a basis equal to all others in society. This dimension of religious freedom is captured in the phrase: free exercise equality.

A Capacious but Limited Right

The limits on religious freedom are, as indicated in the discussion of same-sex marriage, a source of growing disagreement in America. But some limits are clear. Religious freedom does not provide any protection for violence or coercion in the name of religion. Nor can any religion seek a monopoly through the law, which is why the Founders prohibited a federal establishment of religion in the First Amendment. State establishments continued to exist, but disappeared by the 1830s as states gradually accepted the Founders’ premise: state control of religion, and the coercion of conscience that inevitably results, is bad for religion and therefore bad for America.

Beyond America’s Shores: the Stakes Are High

The world is experiencing a growing global crisis of religious freedom. Violent religious persecution, severe government restrictions, and rising social hostilities challenge religious freedom in every region of the world.

The global crisis makes it all the more imperative that the United States retrieve its historic understanding of the importance of religious freedom for the affirmation of human dignity, and for the flourishing of human beings and the societies in which they live. If the precious right of religious freedom is damaged or lost in America, where else can it be retrieved? What country at this point in history will defend the right of religious liberty for everyone, everywhere, if America does not?


1 The chairman’s statement is found on page 29 of the Commission’s report, Peaceful Coexistence: Reconciling Nondiscrimination Principles with Civil Liberties, September 2016, https://www.usccr.gov/pubs/docs/Peaceful-Coexistence-09-07-16.PDF.