Mobile Menu

Freethought Today · November 2017

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

First Place Graduate/‘Older’ Student Essay: The meaning of religious liberty by Alexander Reamy

FFRF gave a $3,000 scholarship to Alexander for his winning essay.

By Alexander Reamy

For the past several decades, sensing that they have lost the culture war, Christian evangelicals have attempted to recover ground by redefining religious liberty as "the right to impose my Bronze Age values on your lifestyle."

In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the Supreme Court cited the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in ruling that organizations are not only people, but people with sincere religious convictions, which may restrict how employees use their medical insurance. In 2015, then-Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (now the second-most powerful man in the world) provoked nationwide protests by signing an enhanced state version of the RFRA, which allowed businesses to deny service to customers for religious reasons. (Most people are unaware that 20 other states have similar legislation in place.) All around the country, the concept of religious liberty is being used as a jackhammer to tear down the wall separating church from state.

The true purpose of this movement, of course, is not to defend the rights of ordinary citizens, but to give Christian fundamentalists the power to ignore inconvenient laws. The First Amendment already guarantees citizens the right to believe whatever bizarre end-of-times story piques their interest, making the RFRA either (at best) redundant, or (more likely) a deliberate assault on secularism.

It is useful to remember as a rule of thumb: Your rights end where mine begin. Individuals are free to behave however they like, assuming they cause no harm to others. The same principle applies to religious belief. You are perfectly free to think that Jesus traveled to America to dictate his final gospel, or that Muhammad ascended to heaven on a winged horse — as long as you do not demand special protection for these beliefs, or require others to act as if they were true. The moment the religious start to receive legal exemptions for beliefs which are not only false, but morally repugnant, oppression and misery are bound to follow.

There is a clear difference between practicing one's religion as a private citizen and exploiting that religion to place an unfair burden on one's neighbors.

Take, for example, the case of Kim Davis, who became a hero to legions of the faithful (including former presidential candidates Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz) by utilizing her "religious freedom" to deny marriage licenses to gay couples. Davis maintained that, as a Christian, she regarded homosexuality as a sin, and therefore could not be forced to violate her conscience by condoning the union of two men or two women. (This argument lends itself well to reductio ad absurdum — imagine a vegetarian steakhouse employee who refuses to work because he is morally opposed to the consumption of meat.) The simple fact remains that in her capacity as county clerk, Davis was representing the state of Kentucky, which is not permitted to discriminate against its citizens on the basis of sexuality.

Similar cases involving the conflict between private belief and public responsibility occur every day, ranging from pharmacists who refuse to fill birth control prescriptions, to public school teachers who insist on presenting the pseudo-science of creationism as an "alternative" to Darwinian evolution.

We will soon discover whether Christian lawmakers are so eager to expand the definition of "religious freedom" when they are not the sole beneficiaries; already, Muslim interest groups are borrowing their tactics, using precisely the same arguments of religious sensitivity to defend child marriage and female genital mutilation. The idea that all people are equal before the law — which, one may point out, is the foundation of liberal democracy — becomes meaningless if different religious groups are held to different standards of behavior.

Given the current administration, it is essential that freethinkers step forward to defend the original meaning of religious liberty. President Trump is working to repeal the Johnson Amendment, which prevents tax-exempt organizations (in particular, churches) from engaging in political speech. This represents merely one stage in an ongoing quest to elevate the status of religious belief above federal law.

The U.S. Constitution — which was the first in the world to establish a clear boundary between divine and temporal power — guarantees that no religious sect will receive preferential treatment from the government. It does not, however, allow religious practices to supersede common law, especially when those practices are socially harmful (e.g., restricting abortion access to women with life-threatening conditions).
As always, the best defense against the rise of theocracy is the recognition that no belief, however sincerely held, is above scrutiny.

Alexander, 21, of Hilton Head, S.C., is a graduate of Arizona State University and now attends ASU in his first year as a Ph.D. candidate in applied mathematics. He hopes to become a professional writer and researcher.