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Redefining Religious Freedom - What is Religious Freedom?

Religious Freedom Does Not Mean Special Rights for Religious Believers

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Religious conservatives are anxious to expand the power of religious organizations in America, even if that means undermining basic principles of religious freedom. Instead of treating religious freedom as a type of general liberty and of freedom of conscience, they want religious freedom to become a unique type of liberty, deserving of special treatment and privileges unavailable to people under any other circumstances. They want to enshrine religious privilege as a basic civil right.

Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act

Have you heard of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA)? Not many are familiar with the RLUIPA, but everyone who cares about church/state separation needs to be familiar with what it says and what effects it can have on local zoning and land-use regulations. Under the guise of protecting religious liberty, Congress passed a law which effectively gives special rights to religious institutions, a situation which the Supreme Court struck down once already.

The Rise of the Theo-Libertarian State

A libertarian state is one where the state is severely constrained in how it can act; a theocratic state is one where the laws are all based around religion. If some Christians have their way, America could become a bit of both: a theo-libertarian state where the government is severely constrained in what it can do because it can't easily do anything if it interferes with people's religious beliefs or practices. Even if you are a libertarian, a theo-libertarian state can't look good.

Religious Freedom Restoration Act

Does everyone remember the Religious Freedom Restoration Act? Enacted by the US Congress in 1993 and quickly signed into law by President Clinton it was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Boerne v. Flores. This didn't end the matter because several states enacted their own versions of the RFRA, all attempting to give religious institutions the ability to ignore generally applicable laws which secular organizations would have to continue adhering to.

Religious Freedom Amendment

The Religious Freedom Amendment was defeated 224-203 in 1998, 61 votes short of the necessary 2/3 majority to change America's Constitution. The RFA was a dangerous manifestation of religious bigotry and authoritarianism. It was nothing more than an attempt by the Christian Right to impose their religion on society. We haven't heard much about the Religious Freedom Amendment in recent years, but the underlying goals are still there and I doubt that this tactic has been entirely abandoned.

Sherbert v. Verner (1963)

Employers find it easy to accommodate the religious practices of majority faiths, but the different practices of minority faiths require extra thought. Apparently, it's too much thought and effort for some employers because the same accommodations given to adherents of mainstream Christian churches are sometimes denied outright to even minority Christian churches, never mind non-Christians. The Supreme Court ruled in Sherbert v. Verner that adherents of minority faiths cannot be disadvantaged.

Employment Division of Oregon v. Smith (1990)

Should religious groups be able to ignore generally applicable laws? If religious believers think that they have religious reasons for some activity that is otherwise illegal, should they be allowed to do it freely while others are prosecuted and jailed for the same activity? That was the question raised in Oregon v. Smith, where adherents of a Native American religious group argued they should be allowed to use peyote in religious services while everyone else is banned from using peyote.

Boerne v. Flores (1997)

Should the government give special rights to religious believers and religious institutions which no atheist or secular institution can have access to? That's what the Congress did with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Far from restoring religious freedom, it created special rights and privileges based on religion, allowing religious institutions to ignore neutral civil laws. The Supreme Court struck down the RFRA in Boerne v. Flores, reinforcing the principle of equality for all.

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