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 Christian Scientists are obligated to seek medical help for their seriously ill child even when doing so violates their religion. And Justice Antonin Scalia, in a Supreme Court case about Native Americans who were fired for smoking peyote as part of their religious practice, wrote the majority opinion upholding the firing, saying that if religious beliefs were superior to the “law of the land,” it would make “every citizen a law unto himself.”
7. Not everything that claims to be religious liberty is religious liberty. Simply claiming it doesn’t make it so. Case in point: a ballot initiative in Florida that would amend the state constitution to allow public funding to go directly to houses of worship and religious institutions. Sponsored by Citizens for Religious Freedom and Non-Discrimination, the ballot initiative would threaten religious freedom by violating the First Amendment’s guarantee of separation of church and state through direct state funding of religious institutions.
Likewise, a ballot initiative in North Dakota would amend the state constitution by forbidding the government from placing virtually any imposition upon an individual’s or organization’s religious liberty. Sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and others, the proposed law is vaguely worded and dangerous. It could undo some of our most basic laws that protect against domestic violence, child abuse, and more. The initiative is also ironic. As noted in an editorial in InForum, a North Dakota news website, “groups and individuals who say they want government out of their lives are backing a constitutional amendment that would open the door to more government intrusion in the form of the courts and likely legislative action precipitated by litigation.”
8. There are real threats to religious liberty in America today. Although not included in the Catholic bishops’ list of attacks on religious liberty, Muslim Americans continue to be threatened for trying to build mosques and face unwarranted government scrutiny as well as unnecessary restrictions on their faith and religious practices. Muslim advocates recently filed a lawsuit against the New York City police department for spying on Muslim-owned businesses, community centers, and mosques, in violation of their First Amendment rights. In addition, harsh anti-immigration laws in states such as Alabama threaten the religious liberty of clergy and others for following their faith when it comes to assisting undocumented immigrants.
9. Disputes over religious liberty are part of our history. Just as many Muslim Americans are viewed with suspicion because of their faith, Catholic and Jewish Americans have been targets in the past. When Catholic immigrants came to this country, they were viewed as unpatriotic and pagan because of their religion. Their churches were attacked, their property was burned, and some were killed in outbreaks of mob violence. Likewise, Jewish Americans faced anti-Semitism throughout much of our history. They were not only discriminated against in housing, employment, education, and civic organizations but also targeted by the Ku Klux Klan, lynched, and killed.
In addition, the government favored certain religions over others during our history and even before we were a nation. Officials in the Massachusetts Bay Colony collected taxes to support the Puritan church and compelled attendance at its services. In Virginia the government paid the salaries of Anglican clergy.
Needless to say, the United States has made significant progress in promoting religious liberty and recognizing its value to democracy.
10. Religious liberty will stay on the front burner in the coming months. To promote their claims of religious liberty, the Catholic Bishops’ Fortnight for Freedom campaign will include “prayer, education and action.” Some participants may commit acts of civil disobedience that will get headlines. At a conference last month on “Rising Threats to Religious Freedom,” conservatives announced plans to create religious liberty caucuses in every state, introduce model “religious liberty” legislation, train state legislators, and organize grassroots multifaith communities to work for passage of the laws.
Apocalyptic rhetoric is on the rise so be on the lookout for extremist claims. Find alternative voices and views. The truth is that conservatives are often not the supporters of religious liberty that they claim to be. Many of their efforts would actually weaken the separation of church and state, and along with it, the religious liberty of millions of Americans. Requiring religious institutions to abide by the Constitution is not discriminating against them—nor is it discrimination to require religious institutions to balance their rights and responsibilities with those of others in a pluralistic democracy.
Contrary to what conservatives would have you believe, our government is not waging a war on religion. Instead we are seeing a vigorous disagreement about the role of civil law and religious liberty—and a healthy debate about citizenship and religion. It’s democracy in action. And it deserves celebration along with religious liberty.
Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at American Progress.