Reclaiming the Real Definition of Religious Freedom

On the eve of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, with its reminder to rededicate ourselves to civil rights and social justice, came the January 16 commemoration of one of our most cherished constitutional rights:  religious liberty.  It’s a reminder of our right to believe, gather, and practice freely around our deepest commitments to the divine, whatever shape that takes.  And it’s a reminder that our government is not only forbidden to discriminate on religious grounds, but also forbidden to prefer or support any religious group.

Granted, this right is always hard to apply in practice.  What counts as a religion?  As support?  As discrimination?  Fine-tuning will always be necessary, as in this week’s Supreme Court case over whether Montana must reinstate tax credits for those who donate toward a scholarship fund that serves mainly religious schools.  But as Faith in Public Life’s John Gehring notes in his recent National Catholic Reporter op ed, the current debate mostly does not address these important questions.  Rather, he observes that today’s “religious freedom debates are now at the epicenter of the culture wars,” serving as covers for other political ends.

Gehring points out that Evangelical Christians and–often–Catholic bishops want to have religious freedom both ways.  On one hand, they support our President’s expansion of religious freedom beyond the Constitution’s limits, to the point at which it trespasses on others’ basic freedoms.  For instance, he notes, “the administration recently proposed a rule that would allow the Department of Health and Human Services to use taxpayers’ money to support [religiously sponsored] programs that deny services to people based on religion, sexual orientation and gender identity.”  In other words, the federal government—in contradiction to constitutional separation of church and state—would be authorized to contract with social service agencies that discriminate on the basis of their own religious commitments.

On the other hand, Gehring notes, the Trump administration has attempted to undermine religious freedom for non-Christians and for LGBTQ and non-white people of faith.  For instance, Gehring notes, Trump “sought a Muslim travel ban, uses nativist Christian nationalism to denigrate communities of color, and undermines the rights of LGBTQ people.”  Clearly, Trump’s skimpy banner of religious freedom is a disguise for other aims.  Those who march behind it endanger not just many Americans’ and recent immigrants’ basic civil rights, but the whole constitutional basis of religious freedom on which we all depend.

As LGBTQ people and as Catholics, we need to reject the misleading opposition of religious freedom and civil rights, reclaiming religious freedom on both Catholic and constitutional terms.  As Gehring argues,

“As Catholics, we have a rich intellectual, theological and social tradition at our disposal that rejects false framing and binary arguments that fit too neatly into partisan boxes. Catholics could be leaders in reclaiming a more authentic commitment to religious freedom that doesn’t pit religion against LGBTQ dignity, or view rights and responsibilities as opposing forces.”

Catholic teaching on human dignity and religious freedom, grounded in Vatican Council II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, calls us to defend the two-pronged constitutional doctrine of religious freedom for all, and non-establishment of religion.  As Catholics, we must oppose the Trump administration’s hypocritical version of religious freedom. And, we must oppose the USCCB when it adopts Trump’s approach.

This task is not for the faint of heart.  As long as religious groups continue to discriminate against LGBTQ folk on religious grounds, defending genuine religious freedom will be painful for us in the short run.  Catholic LGBTQ folk face a particularly wrenching task: fighting for our bishops’ right to denigrate LGBTQ persons while praying for the bishops’ conversion.  We need to

  • Stand up for LGBTQ civil rights wherever they are in danger. Comment on proposed discriminatory executive orders.  Publicize discrimination by publicly funded institutions.  Write to your representative and your senator.
  • Fight against federal establishment of religion. State and federally contracted agencies must observe anti-discrimination law.  Comment, lobby, join a lawsuit if you can.
  • Defend religious freedom absolutely. You may disagree with Jehovah’s Witnesses over blood transfusions, Lubavitcher Jews over nearly-mandatory marriage, Jains over vegetarianism, or Catholic bishops over trans issues.  You may think that President Trump’s campaign to guarantee the already virtually uncontested right to pray at school is pointless.  No matter.  Defend religious freedom.  It’s essential to our democracy and to our Catholic belief in human dignity.
  • Pray and work for Catholic conversion on LGBTQ issues. While religious freedom guarantees privately funded Catholic institutions the right to fire LGBTQ workers, it’s Catholic sexual ethics doctrine—and not religious freedom—that’s to blame.  That’s what needs to change.

As Gehring writes, there’s no time to waste:  “A new movement to rescue and reclaim religious freedom from the political and religious right is more important than ever heading into an election. Religious liberty is not a partisan ornament or a weapon to wield for electoral gain.”

It’s one of the cornerstones of democracy.  Let’s keep it solid.

Cristina Traina, Northwestern University, January 25, 2020

2 replies
  1. Mary Jo
    Mary Jo says:

    Cristie, thank you for this very thoughtful article. I so agree with what you’ve written here – more eloquently than I ever could!

  2. Jeff Jackson
    Jeff Jackson says:

    This article is very helpful and actionable. Sadly, I think many including myself will need regular reminders and perhaps a Religious Freedom 101 series to guide us through these dark ages.


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