On June 30, 2022, the Supreme Court concluded a sweeping term that sent shock waves through the legal community. In case after case, the court upended settled law and raised new questions about the limits of our civil rights and civil liberties. For many religious freedom advocates, decisions condoning prayer in public schools and ending the right to abortion as a matter of privacy, among others, represent a devastating attacks on the separation of religion and government.
And yet this message is sometimes lost, as members of the Religious Right and some of their allies in Congress celebrate the most conservative Supreme Court term in 90 years. This is not, as has been suggested, a “pro-religion court,” but the result of a concerted effort to transform one of our most basic rights into a sword to be wielded against those who live or worship differently.
Religious freedom has a specific meaning, rooted in our rich but imperfect history. But from employment protections to child welfare, religious freedom is increasingly being distorted to justify violations of bedrock nondiscrimination laws and funnel taxpayer dollars toward private religious institutions. It can be challenging to bring attention to these harms clearly and effectively. These are a few of the most common questions we receive and a few ways to respond respectfully.
What is religious freedom?
Religious freedom means that every person is free to make their own decision about religion – to affirm, embrace, and practice religion or to reject it as a matter of conscience and conviction. Within the framework of the United States government, religious freedom is synonymous with constitutional guarantees that the government will never establish an official religion or favor religion over non-religion, and that every person is free to express their religion publicly, so long as that expression does not compromise another person’s freedom.
Religious freedom is sometimes called our first freedom because it is the first freedom guaranteed by the Constitution, through the First Amendment’s Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses. Ultimately a matter of personal conscience, it is the freedom on which all others depend.
Does the First Amendment guarantee only freedom for religion or does it also guarantee freedom from religion?
The framers understood that, at the heart of freedom, lies choice. Therefore, the First Amendment ensures that each person can choose to adhere to a particular faith tradition or none at all. President Franklin Roosevelt spoke to this issue with great clarity, saying, “The traditional Jeffersonian principle of religious freedom was so broadly democratic that it included the right to have no religion at all – it gave the individual the right to worship any God [they] chose or no god.”
Even for people of faith, freedom from religion is important. To believe as we choose, we also must have secure knowledge that we are free from religious coercion. Under this principle, no other person or government entity can condition your participation in public life on adherence to their faith.
The term “religious freedom” is sometimes used to describe practices that exclude or deny services to those who believe or live differently – where did this idea come from?
Over many decades our first freedom has been understood to protect personal belief and free exercise, up until the point that one person’s free exercise would begin to harm others. It’s important not to confuse this history with a concerted rhetorical campaign to elevate the freedom of some over the rights of all. This is a distortion of true religious freedom that focuses exclusively on the freedom of religion at the expense of our freedom from religion. Whether it’s a boss looking to fire an LGBTQ+ employee or a doctor turning away a patient in need, this rhetoric is ultimately about power – and it’s a danger that our founders foresaw.
As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted, “Approving some religious claims while deeming others unworthy of accommodation could be ‘perceived as favoring one religion over another,’ the very risk the Establishment Clause was designed to preclude.” In Hobby Lobby v. Burwell, an often-cited victory in the campaign to redefine religious freedom, she cautioned, “The court, I fear, has ventured into a minefield.”
Where does the phrase “separation of church and state” come from?
The words “wall of separation between church and state” do not appear in the Constitution, but this famous and evocative metaphor was popularized by Thomas Jefferson a few short years after ratification. Centuries later, the phrase has become shorthand for a complicated area of law because it so effectively captures the meaning and application of this bedrock constitutional principle.
The “wall of separation” is the institutional application of the religious freedom guaranteed to all Americans – and our founders knew firsthand that entanglement between the institutions of religion and government meant trouble for both.
Is the United States a Christian nation?
No. More Christians live in the United States today than ever before. But large numbers of people identified with Christianity does not make the nation “Christian” and, with each decade, our nation is enriched as it grows more religiously and spiritually diverse.
The most ardent supporters of the “Christian nation” theory often adhere to a theocratic vision for our country that runs directly counter to the Establishment Clause. By rewriting history and cherry-picking quotations from various founders, Christian nationalism crafts a narrative that merges Christian and American identities – at the expense of people of all other faiths and of none. But Christian nationalists do not speak for all Christians and a growing number are speaking out to reject the threat this movement poses to our nation and their faith. Visit www.ChristiansAgainstChristianNationalism.org to learn more.
Does the separation of religion and government mean that religious beliefs and values should have no influence on political decision-making?
Institutional separation between religion and government is not synonymous with divorcing religion and government in personal citizenship. People naturally bring their personal beliefs and values to the official office they occupy. But there’s a difference between being guided by one’s values, faith-based or otherwise, and enacting laws that require others to live according to your religious tenets. When our leaders take actions that infringe on their constituents’ religious freedom, they overstep the boundary of separation and should be called out.
Interfaith Alliance champions an inclusive vision of religious freedom, protecting people of all faiths and none. Learn more.