Religious liberty is a treasured American value. But over the past several months, it has become a lightning rod for debate. To hear the dire warnings of conservatives, you would think that religious liberty in this country is hanging by a thread. Catholic bishops and their allies are sending alerts to dioceses across the country that say, “Act on your beliefs while you still can.” The bishops are planning a national “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign from June 21 to July 4 to protest what they claim are unprecedented attacks on their religious liberty. And at a recent conference, a conservative speaker said that the government’s assaults on religious freedom could effectively repeal the First Amendment.
Such claims are apocalyptic. They are also wrong. The truth is that religious liberty is alive and well in this country. Being able to worship freely, to bring your faith into the public square, and to be free of the government imposing religion on you—these are all are hard-won achievements that should make us proud.
It is true that the religious liberty of some Americans continues to be challenged. For instance, many Muslim American communities have faced opposition to building mosques and unwarranted scrutiny from the police and FBI. Unfortunately, these infringements are missing from the Catholic bishops’ complaints. And that’s partly because the bishops and their allies want to claim religious liberty as theirs alone, even as they misuse it to advance their policy agenda.
Sadly, religious freedom is becoming a divisive wedge and a partisan political weapon, and this distortion of a core American value is bad for politics and religion. That’s why it’s important to rebut alarmist claims and set the record straight about what religious liberty is—and what it isn’t.
Here are 10 things you need to know about religious liberty:
1. Religious liberty is alive and well in America. And the public knows it. According to a poll by the Public Religion Research Institute, a majority of Americans (56 percent) do not believe religious liberty is threatened. This includes majorities of Catholics, white mainline Protestants, minority Protestants, and the unaffiliated. What’s more, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports that a majority of Americans pray daily, attend worship services regularly, and say that religion is very important in their lives.
2. The government requirement that employers include contraceptive coverage in their health care plans does not threaten religious liberty. The Health and Human Services regulation provides a religious exemption to houses of worship and related religious institutions. Moreover, religiously affiliated institutions like hospitals, schools, and charities that object to birth control will not have to pay for contraceptive coverage because of an additional accommodation the administration offers. This policy protects the religious liberty of institutions, as well as that of female employees who use contraception in accordance with their conscience and values.
3. Marriage equality laws do not threaten religious liberty. Seven states (Connecticut, Vermont, New York, New Hampshire, Washington, Massachusetts, and Iowa) and Washington, D.C., have legalized same-sex marriage. Some have done so through legislation. Each state that passed marriage equality laws has included religious protections in their laws exempting clergy from performing same-sex marriages and granting immunity from lawsuits to religious institutions for refusing to provide goods and services related to same-sex marriage.
4. The government is not waging a war on religion. Despite claims by Catholic bishops that the current administration is engaged in a war against them, federal funding to Catholic organizations has increased during the past two years. Groups getting more money include Catholic Relief services ($12.45 million in 2008 to $57.89 million in 2011), Catholic Charities USA ($440 million in 2008 to $554 million in 2010), the Catholic Medical Mission Board ($500,000 in 2008 to $7 million in 2011), and others.
5. Religious liberty has two components: freedom to worship and practice your faith, and freedom from government establishment of religion. The First Amendment contains a free exercise clause and an establishment clause. Both are essential. While much attention is being paid to the first part—free exercise—the second part is equally important. No one should be pressured into religious beliefs or coerced into practices they do not freely choose. The separation of church and state protects these twin freedoms and all Americans should value that protection, no matter what their beliefs or politics are.
6. Religious liberty is not an absolute. Our country has always had civil laws that may limit religious liberty. We passed laws making it illegal to practice plural marriage, although it was a core tenet of the Mormon faith. Parents who are