What is Religious Freedom?

Freedom of religion is often called the “first freedom” because it is the first provision mentioned in the United States Bill of Rights. Many scholars believe all the other freedoms depend upon the foundation of religious freedom to establish and perpetuate the values that will sustain the other freedoms. The First Amendment of our Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The definition of religious freedom has been contested since the founding days of our country. It has most often been called into question when dealing with a minority religion, since the practices of minority religions are often not widely known or accepted by the majority of our citizens. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) was adopted in 1993 in response to a Supreme Court decision that allowed two Native American drug counselors to be fired because they used the drug peyote in their Native American religious rituals. Muslims, Sikhs, and other minority religions have also benefited from the guarantee of religious freedom in the U.S.

Religious freedom has become a hotly contested political issue in the U.S. in relationship to efforts to remove discrimination against LGBTQ persons. Famously, a baker who declined to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding as an expression of his religious convictions was protected under the RFRA law. Now in Congress a proposed new law, the Equality Act, would remove religious freedom protections for those who cannot affirm LGBTQ practices.

Defining Religious Freedom

A recent commentary by the Rev. David W. Key, Sr., an ordained Baptist religious historian, asserts “religious liberty protects our individual right to worship how we see fit.” This limiting of religious freedom to the “right to worship” came to prominence during the Obama presidency and was one of the issues that contributed to the election of President Trump in 2016.

The question is: Does the protection of religious freedom only apply to our ability to worship God in the way “we see fit,” or does it protect the freedom to live our lives as our religion teaches us?

The wording of the First Amendment espouses both a freedom from and a freedom for. We are to be freed fromhaving a religion imposed upon us in the form of a government established church or religion. We see this tendency today in the country of India, where the majority of the population believes that to be truly Indian, one must adopt the Hindu religion. Conversely, the amendment says we are to be freed for the exercise or practice of our religion of choice.

Does the practice or exercise of our religion stop when we walk out the church door? Or is it only what we do in private? That is what defining religious freedom as the right to worship requires.

Christianity and most other religions are not simply a way of worship, but a way of life. A religion is a value system that governs our thoughts and desires, promoting a way of living out that value system.

The Apostle Paul writes, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship” (Romans 12:1). He is not talking about human sacrifice in a worship service, but about living our lives for God as an act of sacrificial worship. The Apostle James writes, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27). Again, religion extends to how we live our lives, here in caring for the vulnerable.

According to a Christian definition of religion, our faith is expressed not just in worship, but in all of life, which is in effect an act of worship to the God who made us. It is nonsensical to think that one can in church worship the God who reveals himself to us through his word and then go out into the world to live in ways contrary to that same word. Jesus rightly called people who do that hypocrites. (Of course, we all struggle at times to be faithful to God’s will for us, but to live a consistent, God-honoring life is our goal.)

The Question of Discrimination

LGBTQ persons are created in the image of God. God loves them unconditionally, and so should we. There is no excuse for demeaning LGBTQ persons or treating them with anything less than the dignity and respect they merit as fellow human beings. Any kind of violence or insult directed at LGBTQ persons is unacceptable and ought to be resisted by Christians and all people of good will.

At the same time, the Equality Act is attempting to impose a belief system (a secular religion?) on all U.S. citizens. That perspective affirms virtually any kind of behavior – heterosexual or homosexual – between consenting adults and enables one to remake one’s gender in line with one’s feelings or self-understanding.

How does that belief system work out in particular areas of alleged discrimination?

Within a secular society, what a person does in their private lives does not affect one’s employment, so long as it does not infringe upon the law or harm the person’s employer. But religious organizations (not just churches, but schools, hospitals, missions, and others) do still expect their employees to reflect the values of the religious organization. Should the government force a Christian school to employ a partnered lesbian as a teacher if the same-sex relationship is contrary to the school’s religious beliefs?

The Christian tradition defines marriage as between one man and one woman. The secular state can define marriage however it chooses. But should the government force Christians to affirm and celebrate the state’s definition of marriage, even though it goes against Christian teaching?

Should the government force Christian adoption agencies to place children with unmarried or same-sex couples, even though such placements run counter to the agency’s values that married parents form the best foundation and example for the raising of children?

Necessary health care is a basic expression of human caring for others and ought not be withheld from anyone for any reason. Should the government force a Christian doctor to administer puberty blocking drugs to a 13-year-old who is confused about their gender and wants to transition to the gender opposite the one in which they were born, despite the doctor’s religious belief that gender is a reflection of God’s creative intent, not to be manipulated?

Should a Christian student group be barred from a college campus because, while it opens its membership to anyone who wants to attend, it insists that officers and leaders of the organization must share the group’s Christian beliefs?

All of the above questions stem from actual examples of Christian organizations that have been taken to court in order to enforce the government’s concept of non-discrimination. They represent conflicts between Christian beliefs founded on Scripture and long-standing tradition versus the government’s interest in promoting the equal treatment of all citizens.

People of good will can differ on how they would decide these difficult questions. I would simply point out that there are some instances where the concept of LGBTQ “equality” is in major conflict with a Christian understanding of sexuality and gender. While all persons, including LGBTQ persons, ought to be accorded their full human dignity and respect, it would be a violation of religious freedom for the government to impose upon all citizens a particular understanding of LGBTQ equality that requires the abandonment of long-standing and well-supported aspects of Christian religious doctrine.

The RFRA act would allow such imposition only in cases of compelling government interest and in the least restrictive way possible. The Equality Act would undo these protections to make possible a broader imposition of the government’s concept of equality and weaken the religious freedom guaranteed by our U.S. constitution. A proposed compromise law, called Fairness for All, is supported by some as a way of balancing these competing interests, preventing unlawful discrimination while protecting religious freedom. (The linked article provides helpful background information.)

To restrict religious freedom only to overt acts of worship is to miss the point behind religion in general and Christianity in particular. Christian faith is meant to transform lives in accord with God’s will for human flourishing. To substitute the government’s definition of human flourishing when it runs counter to Christian faith is, in effect, to impose another religion, a secular one, on Christians. Such a forced substitution would put Christians today in the position of the Apostles Peter and John when they stood before the Jewish Sanhedrin and said, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God” (Acts 4:19). Our primary allegiance is, and always must be, to the true Lord of the universe, not to an earthly state.

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