There’s an important debate going on in our country that lots of folks aren’t paying much attention to. I can’t say that I blame them. After all, with work, kids, bills, errands, and more—how much energy is left over to think about religious freedom?
But here’s the thing: The current debate about religious freedom is already shaping laws and policies that will affect each one of us. Many of these laws and policies are harmful and will have far-reaching consequences that affect the everyday details of our lives—from our ability to shop at certain businesses to the cost of our health care—that even the supporters of these laws are likely to regret.
That’s because the laws and policies in question go too far. They promote a kind of religious freedom on steroids, a muscular bullying that aims to get its way regardless of the harm or cost it may inflict on others.
But one can support religious freedom and oppose that kind of harm at the same time.
Take a look at the law passed in Indiana last week. It’s called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act—also known as RFRA—and is modeled on the federal RFRA, which was the basis for last year’s Hobby Lobby case before the Supreme Court.
The impetus for the Indiana RFRA was a 2014 court ruling in favor of marriage equality in the state. A few months after the ruling, conservatives in the Indiana Legislature introduced the bill, which would allow any business, corporation, or individual to claim their religious belief as a defense if sued by a private party. In other words, a baker, florist, photographer, jeweler, hotel owner—the list goes on—could refuse to serve lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, people and cite his or her religion as a valid defense in court.
A number of other states, including Georgia and Michigan, are considering their own RFRA bills. In each state, conservative opponents to marriage equality are hurrying to lock in religious exemptions as a way to opt out of civil rights laws. They know that time is running out, politically and socially, as support for such refusals declines.
As these legislative fights play out across the country, it’s important for all of us to get up to speed on the issue of religious freedom in order to learn what’s at stake and to speak out.
First, we must determine what we mean by religious freedom. Does religious freedom belong to all Americans or only to a select few? Is religious freedom unlimited, no matter what cost its expression may impose on others? How can we honor and respect religion—and its expression—in a pluralistic society in which people have many different beliefs and practices?
I would argue that religious freedom belongs to all Americans. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court said something quite different in its Hobby Lobby ruling last June. In a 5-4 decision, the Court basically said that the religious beliefs of Hobby Lobby’s corporate owners not only deserve legal recognition but also trump the religious beliefs and health needs of the company’s employees.
In its lawsuit, Hobby Lobby’s owners objected on religious grounds to certain types of contraception and refused to include them in their health care plans as required by the Affordable Care Act. However, both the company’s owners and a majority of the Supreme Court justices failed to acknowledge the fact that many—if not the majority—of Hobby Lobby’s employees most likely hold different religious beliefs than the owners, therefore supporting and using the types of contraception that their bosses find immoral.
In essence, the Court ruled that the boss’ religious freedom is more important than that of the workers. And its ruling has had real-world consequences: Hobby Lobby’s employees are now literally forced to pay the costs of their boss’ religious beliefs.
I’d call that an abuse of religious freedom. We all have the right to believe and practice our faith, but we do not have the right to coerce others to follow our beliefs or the right to cause others harm. That’s where limits come in. All freedoms in a democracy have limits. And in our pluralistic society, religious freedom ought not to be different.
A helpful way to think about religious freedom is to consider whether a particular practice imposes a significant burden on someone else or causes them harm. For instance, does the religious practice of wearing a hijab or yarmulke cause harm to others? Does wearing a beard? What about being served a kosher meal in prison? It’s pretty hard to prove that any of these practices inflict harm on others.
On the other hand, there are times when the free exercise of one’s religion does impose significant harm on groups of people. The Hobby Lobby decision, for example, harms its employees. And state RFRA laws can harm LGBT people and others who some may deem morally objectionable.
In addition to the real harm that these RFRAs inflict on targeted groups, they inflict broader, long-term damage on the perception of religion and religious freedom as a public good. The United States has always honored religious exemptions to its laws, understanding that the benefits outweigh whatever costs society, as a whole, might pay.
But it is not hard to predict a shift in public sentiment, given the Hobby Lobby ruling and state RFRAs, which allow certain religious believers to impose their beliefs on others. In fact, we are already seeing a backlash to Indiana’s new law: Companies and other organizations view it as discriminatory and are threatening to pull their business from the state. When religion is equated with discrimination, no one benefits.
In a nation such as ours—made up of a vibrant mix of religious believers and nonbelievers—no one should be permitted to force others to follow beliefs that aren’t their own or to use religion as an excuse to discriminate. Our religious freedom is too precious—and too hard won—to be squandered in such a way.
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.