Sunday is Religious Freedom Day, which commemorates the passage of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom on Jan. 16, 1786. This pioneering legislation laid the groundwork for church-state separation at the national level by inspiring the wording of the First Amendment’s religious freedom clauses.
You can easily see examples of religious freedom in action. If you stroll through the streets of any decent-sized town, you’ll see a variety of houses of worship. That’s religious freedom in action. If a person stands on a street corner downtown to hand out tracts, that’s religious freedom in action. If you’ve been a Christian all your life but decide to check out Buddhism (or if you decide to step away from organized religion entirely, as a growing number of Americans are doing), that’s religious freedom in action.
That’s what religious freedom is. But what is it not? This is an important question as the Supreme Court inches toward adopting a theory of religious freedom that, to many of us, isn’t really religious freedom at all.
With that thought in mind, here are some things to consider as we prepare to celebrate Religious Freedom Day:
Religious freedom is not a license to ignore laws you don’t like or subject other people to harm: A theory of religious freedom that is so broad it encourages people to pick and choose the laws they will follow is dangerous. As we’ve seen during the COVID pandemic, allowing houses of worship to remain open in the face of stay-at-home orders or giving people the power to refuse vaccine mandates because of religious exemptions has only prolonged the pandemic and added to the death toll. Religious freedom should never be a license to harm others.
Religious freedom is not a vehicle to discriminate in secular settings: A house of worship has every right to decide who it will admit as members and offer its services to. But the owner of a secular, for-profit business should have no right to refuse services to entire classes of people (LGBTQ folks, Muslims, single moms, atheists, etc.) simply because of his religious beliefs. During the Civil Rights era, some business owners in the South refused service to Black Americans because they said the Bible compelled racial segregation. That argument didn’t pass legal muster then, and it shouldn’t now.
Religious freedom is not the power to commandeer public schools and compel students to participate in worship: Students have the right to pray in public schools in an individual capacity and in a non-disruptive manner. But public schools, which serve students from a wide variety of religious and non-religious backgrounds, cannot sponsor prayer, Bible reading or other forms of worship. Your religious freedom is not violated because you are denied the power to use an arm of government for worship. (For more on this, see Americans United’s “Know Your Rights” project.)
Religious freedom is not the right to demand taxpayer support for your faith: The propagation of religious opinions and all religious activities must be supported with voluntary contributions. There should be nothing like a church tax in America. If a faith is unable to raise sufficient funds through voluntary means, it will either have to curtail its activities or close its doors. It is never the role of the taxpayers to bail out a house of worship or religious school.
Religious freedom is not exclusionary; it’s inclusive: In some cases, religious groups may be able to use public spaces for free-speech activities and the display of symbols that they pay for and erect. In those situations, all other religious groups (and equivalent non-religious organizations, such as humanists and atheists) must be given access to the space as well. Religious freedom must never become an excuse for one group – even if it is the majority – to monopolize public spaces and exclude others.
In Jefferson’s statute, he criticized “the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others….”
We would do well to remember his words today. Religious freedom is a vital principle. We make a mockery of it when we allow it to become a device to control others, subject them to harm or diminish their rights.