The Bumpy Road of Religious Freedom

The Bumpy Road of Religious Freedom

On Sundays most Christians get up, get ready, and head to church. And we don’t slip quietly into hidden buildings. Rather, many of our churches are in prominent places in our communities. There are no government agents taking down license plate numbers in the church parking lot. And we don’t typically fear reprisal from those who don’t share our religious convictions.

All seems merry and bright for religious liberty in the U.S. Unfortunately not only Christians, but all other religious believers need to be on guard. That is, all believers whose faith, as someone put it, “has not petrified into politics and social service.” The prospects for religious freedom in the future are neither merry nor bright. They are, in fact, more than a little scary.

Consider these recent events:

Exhibit A: In June a federal court ruled that New York City may legally ban churches from using school buildings for worship. Opting to forgo rent and leave the buildings empty, the financially strapped city is evicting churches as of the end of June (barring the churches receiving an emergency stay). All other community groups are free to rent space at the city’s thousands of public schools.

Exhibit B: Santa Monica, California, has banned male circumcision. San Francisco’s ban will be a November ballot initiative and other communities across the country are considering a ban.  It is, proponents of the ban argue, unnecessary surgery (in spite of inconclusive Center for Disease Control research). As for Jews and Muslims who believe circumcision is a necessary religious ritual, it’s tough beans. The bans permit no religious exceptions. And this is not an oversight. In case someone missed the anti-religious motivation, the campaign to ban circumcision in San Francisco is using a comic book called Foreskin Man in which the drawings of the heartless evildoers—religious Jews—are, as Wesley Smith points out, arereminiscent ofanti-Semitic Nazi propaganda.

Exhibit C: Catholic Charities has been in the adoption and foster care business for decades. They have often taken the hardest cases—older children and children with disabilities—who are hardest to place. Now changing laws on same-sex marriage and anti-discrimination policies are forcing the group to choose between their faith and continuing to provide adoption and foster care services.

The definitions of “marriage” and “family” are, from a Christian perspective, fixed. The Bible makes it clear that marriage is one man and one woman. Families are related by marriage, blood, or adoption. This means that “a group of individuals who live together” does not a family make except perhaps in some metaphorical sense. Thus, same-sex couples cannot be married because marriage is by definition one man and one woman. These are religious assertions as well as natural law assertions.

Some people (including, no doubt, some readers of this article) will disagree. But religious freedom permits people to hold religious opinions even if contrary or unpopular. At least you’d think so.

But when Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., declared that gay and lesbian couples had the right to marry, they made it clear that any foster care or adoption agency that refused to place children with same-sex couples would need to close. Illinois insisted on the same rules in their civil union regulations. In all three cases, legislators were asked, but refused, to add any religious exceptions to their bills.

Catholic Charities was offered a choice: violate your Christian convictions thereby surrendering your religious freedom to the state or close down adoption and foster care services. They closed.

Now lest you think these are Jewish, Muslim, or Catholic problems, think for a moment about the possible implications for Christian schools, church-based daycare centers, parental decisions about their children’s education and health, church membership and discipline, and the rental of church facilities for weddings. Ask the Methodists in Atlantic City about that last one.

What Chuck Donovan of the Heritage Foundation writes about adoption in Illinois is true across the board: “Once again, the conflict centered on the legal redefinition of marriage and family. But at a deeper level, what’s at stake is the future of moral and religious liberty.”

The churches in the New York City can appeal. Santa Monica, San Francisco, and other cities will, I hope, end up in court. And Catholic Charities in Illinois is standing up to the state in court for the violation of their religious freedom. In a free society, when our freedoms are violated, we are right to fight back.

In addition, laws that could impinge religious freedom need to have strong and explicit religious exception language of the sort missing (as of this writing) from New York’s pending legislation that would allow same-sex couples to marry. Yet even there we need to be careful since when it comes to exceptions, what the state gives, the state can also take away.

And the state has no right to take away religious freedom since it is, in the words of Boston University sociologist Peter Berger, the legislative recognition of a fact of life. The fact of life is that our thoughts are our own and our consciences are our own.

Besides that, without religious freedom, all other freedoms are fake. What good is freedom of speech if you can’t express what you believe? What’s the point of freedom of association if the state restricts consciences and thus the whole point of associating?

From a Christian point of view, religious freedom is a gift of God and central to our human dignity and personal integrity. Regardless of your take on predestination, the Bible clearly teaches that God does not coerce belief. He never twists our arms. Many who saw the miracles performed by Moses, Jesus, and others chose to exercise their religious freedom by moving on and ignoring God.

Since even God does not coerce belief, we have no right to coerce belief from one another. Evangelism is sharing and reasoning, never threatening, brainwashing, or bribing. Religious freedom is for everyone.

And yet the desire to violate the consciences of other and coerce belief or at least assent is as old as sin. As James Hitchcock has written:

Just outside public view, in books and journals read only by scholars, there are influential American political and legal theorists who openly advocate the restriction of religious liberty, in order to prevent the ‘wrong’ ideas from being circulated. In particular these theorists bluntly insist that parents have no right to inculcate their own beliefs in their children.

We can already see how such scholarly ideas trickle down into public policy.

The consequences of losing our religious freedom are too dire to leave the struggle to others. St. Peter reminds us that we each have a part and that part must be taught and learned:

But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. (1 Peter 3:14-16).

The story of religious freedom in America is not nearly as straightforward or simple as many want it to be. It’s a complicated and bumpy ride—sometimes expanding, sometimes contracting. There was no golden age of religious freedom. It has always been changing and adapting to new circumstances. The new circumstance we face is a growing hostility to orthodox religious believers in the public square. It’s a threat all religious believers must face seriously and together, knowing that with diligence and with God’s grace, the end of the story could surprise us all.

This article published on June 24, 2011.

Jim Tonkowich is Senior Vice President of Oxford House Research (, a UK-based think-and-do tank focusing on the role of faith and morality in global affairs.