Here are three things you can do to keep religious freedom vibrant and meaningful in the 21st century:
1. Get up to speed on the meaning of religious freedom
It’s important to know when an issue involves religious freedom and when it does not. For instance, forcing citizens to attend worship services or to pay taxes to support a religious institution—both of which were required in colonial America—are clear violations of religious freedom. Our founders recognized this and outlawed such practices in the Constitution.
The United States has come a long way since those early days. Indeed, American history shows a steady—albeit uneven—journey towards increased understanding and respect for various faiths, as well as those who espouse no particular religious belief. But we still have a long way to go. In the past decade, Americans have seen government surveillance of Muslim mosques across the country along with the targeting of American Muslim communities simply because of their religious beliefs. And just last year, the Supreme Court overrode the constitutional rights of citizens in Greece, New York by allowing prayers at the town’s local government meetings, even though the prayers are expressly sectarian and almost always Christian in nature.
But not every issue or controversy that claims to be about religious freedom actually is. Case in point: Despite claims by Kelvin Cochran—the recently dismissed chief of the Atlanta fire department—that his case involves religious freedom, the truth is that he was fired because he exhibited unprofessional behavior and poor judgment that created a hostile working environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, employees. Cochran wrote and distributed a homophobic book that attacked LGBT people and claimed that their behavior dishonors God. As a New York Times editorial noted, if Cochran had belonged to a church that believed in the inferiority of white people and distributed a book describing their inherent flaws, he would have been quickly dismissed without controversy.
In the coming year, there will likely continue to be claims from various entities that their religious freedom is being violated by anti-discrimination laws and policies that require them to provide services to the public on a fair and equal basis. Let’s be clear: Refusing to bake a cake or provide flowers, invitations, tuxedos, or rings for a same-sex wedding does not exemplify religious freedom. These business owners are operating in the public sphere and should be providing equal services to all instead of passing judgment on certain customers and determining who is worthy of receiving their services. Ironically, such behavior violates a hallmark teaching of most major religions: Treat others as you would like to be treated.
2. Make your voice heard on behalf of real religious freedom
This year, a number of states will be introducing bills that threaten to enshrine discrimination in public policy by creating overly broad religious exemptions to certain laws. Some of the bills are modeled after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA, and carry the same name. Beware. These bills are a last-ditch effort by some conservative forces to opt out of anti-discrimination laws by claiming religious freedom.
If successful, these bills would seriously weaken the progress toward equality and justice by carving out second-class status for LGBT Americans. The federal version of the RFRA, which became law in 1993, was never intended to impose the theology of one group upon others with different beliefs. Nor did the federal RFRA intend to recast political and cultural disputes as battles over religious freedom.
Unfortunately, that is exactly what the Supreme Court’s Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. ruling did last June when it granted religious liberty to for-profit corporations, allowing them to refuse to include contraceptive coverage in their health care plans as required by the Affordable Care Act. The Court’s misinterpretation of the federal RFRA has opened the door to a range of unwarranted claims of religious liberty by those who want to opt out of obeying certain laws.
3. Talk to someone who has different religious beliefs or no religious belief
It is all too easy for religious freedom to become a partisan issue, with good guys on one side and villains on the other. But religious freedom is too important to be turned into a political weapon. At a time when religion is increasingly seen by the public as narrow-minded and intolerant, it is more important than ever to build bonds of understanding, familiarity, trust, and respect among both people of faith and those who are not religious. Start a conversation. Listen with an open mind. Learn something new.
Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.
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Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative