Religious freedom isn’t an excuse to be a bigot, it isn’t a free license to discriminate, and it’s definitely not a weapon politicians can wield to force their way of life on to others. But in recent years, regressive politicians and fundamentalist religious figures have discovered that by pretending religious freedom provides just those insidious qualities, they can hold sway over Americans who don’t share their backward views. Progressive religious and secular people have shied away for far too long from directly confronting these bogus claims to an inherently discriminatory mutation of religious freedom.
Unfortunately, the type of religious freedom pushed by the religious right has gained traction in Congress and in some states, which have introduced so-called “religious freedom” bills that allow discrimination against the LGBTQ community and deny women access to reproductive healthcare based on “sincerely-held religious beliefs” or “moral convictions.”
For example, in North Carolina, a U.S. federal judge is hearing a challenge to State Senate Bill 2, which allows magistrate judges to “recuse [themselves] from performing all lawful marriages... based upon any sincerely held religious objection.” In California, a coalition of conservative groups and individuals is advocating against State Senate Bill 1146, which protects LGBTQ students in religious universities, on the grounds that it infringes upon their religious liberty. These groups claim that by requiring religious universities and colleges to publicly disclose their stance toward LGBTQ students and to treat LGBTQ students equally in order to receive state funding, the bill “is harmful to the free exercise of religion in higher education.”
At the federal level, Congress is considering the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA), which would prohibit the government from taking “discriminatory actions” against any person or entity that acts according to “a religious belief or moral conviction that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman” and that “sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage.” FADA would effectively sanction discrimination against same-sex married couples, unmarried couples, and families with children born out of wedlock in all areas of civic life—employment, housing, business and healthcare.
Another bill Congress is considering is the Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act, which would allow child welfare agencies to refuse to provide services that “conflict with the provider’s sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions.” Adoption agencies would be allowed to refuse to place children in homes with same-sex couples, interracial couples and single people based on the agency’s views on homosexuality, interracial relationships and single parenting.
These bills are based on a fundamental and intentional misinterpretation of religious freedom. True religious freedom starts with the absence of a state religion and includes strict government neutrality that does not promote or privilege any religious view. True religious freedom also provides protections for all to believe or not as they see fit. Just like other essential freedoms, religious freedom doesn’t provide a free pass for anyone to interfere in someone else’s life, so it only allows religious practices that don’t burden others. Religious freedom, properly understood, is a shield that protects us from impositions from government, religious majorities, employers, and others in power who might otherwise threaten what we see fit to think and do.
Unfortunately, not everyone is willing to embrace true religious freedom. At the Democratic National Convention, Khizr Khan gave a stirring speech about how his family immigrated to America from Pakistan believing “in hard work and the goodness of this country,” and he explained how his son, Capt. Humayun Khan, joined the U.S. Marines and gave his life to protect his fellow soldiers. Then he added, “If it was up to Donald Trump, [my son] never would have been in America…Donald Trump consistently smears the character of Muslims. . . He vows to build walls and ban us from this country.”
Trump wants to bar Muslim immigrants from entering the country and supports government surveillance of Muslim Americans as a means to “protect” national security, yet he simultaneously purports to be a proponent of religious liberty. In doing so, Trump demonstrates how this warping of religious freedom is used to justify expanding discrimination even further.
Though someone might believe differently from you or engage in behavior that is contrary to the teachings of your faith, that doesn’t allow you to invoke religious freedom to discourage their belief or prevent their behavior. This sort of flawed thinking must be forcefully rejected if the American people want their government officials to spend less time crafting discriminatory legislation and instead focus on policies that unite people of all faiths and of no faith.