A (Friendly) Conversation About Religious Freedom

This week I attended a symposium at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. that dealt with the issue of religious freedom in America, a topic that has received a lot of attention as of late from politicians and the media. The event, organized by the First Amendment Center, focused mainly on defining religious freedom, comparing the contemporary state of religious freedom in America to the rest of the world, and attempting to predict what religious freedom would look like in America in the near future.

Religious freedom has been a hot button issue for the national news media for several years. We are all subjected to the annual “War on Christmas” as well as periodic complaints from conservative religious outlets who feel that their ability not only to express their religious beliefs but to act on them has been challenged by a government and society that is determined to stop unpopular religiously-motivated practices. These events are all part of the supposed “Culture War” that is apparently ravaging America and stopping good religious people from practicing their faith as they would like.

The panelists for the day, which included Secular Coalition for America advisory board member and TheAtlantic.com correspondent Wendy Kaminer, started by defining religious freedom. As was to be expected, there was much disagreement on what religious freedom really means, but Kaminer’s statement that religious freedom is the freedom of and freedom from religion was perhaps the most relevant. Kaminer argued that while religious freedom means an individual has an absolute right to express their beliefs, individuals don’t have absolute freedom to act on their faith. This touched on an earlier discussion by several other panel members who stipulated that religious freedom is the ability to live within the norms of a faith consistent with the compelling interests of society at large.

Essentially, what secular groups like the American Humanist Association mean when they talk about religious freedom and the limited ability of individuals to act on their faith is that people have the right to believe and say what they want, but they don’t have the right to infringe on another person’s rights even if doing so is required by their faith. An example of this would be a religion that requires forcible conversion to that particular faith of people from different religions or of no religion—this compromises the ability of others to believe, or not believe, as they see fit.

A real world example of this concept would be the anti-bullying laws in place in many different states. These laws have provisions that make bullying of an individual because of their race, gender, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, and political affiliation illegal. To an evangelical Christian who wants to tell LGBT Americans on a daily basis that their sexual preferences will cause them to burn in hell, such a law would seem like government repression of their religion as they would not be able to act on their religious beliefs. But to those of us who abide by Kaminer’s definition of religious freedom, such a law is just the logical continuation of the idea that while a person is free to believe as they choose, they are not allowed to use their religious beliefs as a platform to violate the law.

This conversation served as the stepping stone to the discussion over whether religious freedom is really under attack in America, and whether the state of religious freedom in America is better or worse than the global standard.  While some panelists debated whether or not evangelical Christians are seeing their religious freedoms being restricted, the entire panel agreed with the idea that religious freedom in America is much more secure than in many different locations around the world. Perhaps the most significant case of religious freedom being restricted in America was mentioned by panelist Hoda Elshishtawy of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, who stated the struggles that many American Muslims face when trying to establish a house of worship or even just to practice freely suggests a strong national bias against Islam. That being said, most of this conversation focused on whether religious freedom included the ability of individuals to act upon their religious beliefs, which depending how each individual panelist felt about this question, informed their opinion on whether religious freedom was under attack in America.

The day concluded with questions of the future of religious freedom in America, with most on the panel saying that they didn’t expect many radical changes on the issue except for those that are brought about by the increasing number of nontheists in America. The panel understands that as the number of nonreligious Americans increase, our opinions about religious freedom and the separation of church and state will greatly influence the national debate over these issues. However, since our nation already has a strong history of church state separation, the panel largely felt it was likely that this growing movement of nonbelievers will only work to strengthen the secular traditions that are present in our national history.

Perhaps what is most important in this national conversation over faith and freedom is not that we all agree, but that we decide to discuss our differences in a civil and reasonable manner. Hopefully we can all agree, at the very least, that religious beliefs are a private and personal matter. Just because a person is religious doesn’t mean that they are able to break certain laws or regulations without consequences.