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Monday, September 26, 2022

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Key Considerations in Defending Religious Freedom Today

The Trinity Forum addressed vital concerns in defending religious liberty today at home and abroad in a panel discussion on August 26. Cherie Harder, Trinity Forum President, discussed the issues with Kristina Arriaga, for many years Executive Director of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and Stanley Carlson-Thies, founder and Director of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance.

Why is religious liberty important or needed? Harder said that “in protecting religious liberty, the government respects its own limitations and its inability to dictate answers to ultimate questions, and acknowledges that the human conscience answers to a higher authority than the state. It’s also the most basic requirement of any free society.” She acknowledged that religious freedom does have limitations. The challenge to religious freedom in our day has been both from secularism and from accommodating the many different religious viewpoints with religious liberty claims. But recently, there are traditional Christians who regard religious freedom as incompatible with Christianity.

Carlson-Thies defined religious freedom as “the legal freedom to follow God the way you think God asked you to follow as a person or organization when the law says otherwise.”  He noted, in particular, the practice of religious belief requires activities outside of houses of worship. This freedom has to be not only for individual persons, but for organizations, since organized activity is part of religious practice. He said “there should be a priority on people being able to live by conviction.”

Arriaga said that “religious freedom is the ability of every individual to forge a path to truth.” She said that it’s important to understand that “religious freedom does not protect religion, religious freedom protects individuals.” It’s important to note that this does not contradict Carlson-Thies’ concern for organizational religious liberty. Religious individuals must act in religious organizations holding their own religious standards in order to adequately live out the precepts of their faith.

Harder observed that most religious liberty cases that get to the Supreme Court actually involve religious organizations. She asked if there is in fact religious liberty for organizations. Carlson-Thies responded that “there has to be.” He said that the practice of religion is not just individual, but corporate. Religious social services, for instance, which may be part of a precept to charity, must be carried out by religious standards.

Harder asked whether or not, in a secularizing society, religious freedom does not amount to privilege for believers. Arriaga said that religious freedom protects everyone, “A to Z, atheist to Zoroastrian.” Religious freedom protects who one is as a member of a given religious group, but also gives the ability to change one’s religious identity.

An alternative challenge to religious freedom comes from those religious viewpoints that regard religious freedom as contrary to their doctrine and precepts. Harder asked why there should be freedom to make the wrong choice. Carson-Thies said that God does not stop people from making the wrong choice. “He allows rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” The divine call on a person’s life, Carlson-Thies said, is commonly expressed as a call to the individual, which is “a little bit different than having the government say ‘I’m going to throw you in prison if you say this or that, or do this or that.” He said that religious freedom doctrine does not hold that all religious activities are necessarily right, but “just gives you space to pray, to argue, to model belief, to serve others, to try to draw them [other people] into what you think is right, rather than saying I’m going to sic the government on you … I don’t trust the government to tell us exactly what’s right about God.”

Harder asked Arriaga what she would say to those who hold that concern for religious freedom domestically is inappropriate considering the violent religious persecution abroad. Arriaga, who had been Vice Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, responded that the United States has “led the fight for religious freedom, particularly in the last twenty-five years.” The U.S. became the only nation in the world with an Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, with all American embassies required to report on the state of religious freedom in their particular country, with recommendations for improvement. Such commitment to religious freedom internationally is only possible with a culture of religious freedom domestically, which must be maintained against erosion and attack.

Carlson-Thies added that the American government cannot consistently advocate for religious freedom in other countries if it does not respect religious freedom at home. Important religious freedom advocacy organizations which advance religious freedom overseas are faith-based and headquartered in America and must have the freedom to be “faithful themselves.”

Harder asked how a nation develops a culture of religious freedom. Arriaga responded that countries all over with world are facing “cancel culture.” She referred to the recent attempt on the life of Salmon Rushdie, “whose only crime was to say something that the Ayatollah Khomeini did not like.” She said that the answer to so-called “hate speech” is not censorship, but “more speech,” engaging what has been found offensive. People should be free to talk about religion and politics. “Don’t let anyone silence you,” she said. Religious freedom in fact protects unpopular opinions against attempts to silence them.

Harder asked what “a legitimate limit” to religious freedom would be. Carlson-Thies said that religious freedom indeed is not simply the right to live by one’s faith regardless of any other considerations. Arriaga cited polygamy, human sacrifice, and female genital mutilation as examples of things religious freedom should not protect.  Rights claims must be balanced, she said. Carlson-Thies maintained that America has a “strong civil society” with many different kinds of religious organizations to “do things like education and health care, taking care of the homeless … and they can do those in ways that are consistent with their faith and in a way that doesn’t harm anybody else.” He believes that increasing reliance on civil society will help alleviate the current tensions over religious freedom. This extends, he said, even to the most contentious issue of sexual morality. While there must be a public space where equality prevails, the state must be careful not to extend this into the private sphere where people must “live uniquely by their faith.” This writer would emphasize that harm considered against a religious liberty claim ought to be material, not psychological. To disallow a religious claim because others are offended by the claim essentially renders religious freedom meaningless. There is no point to freedom of religion (or speech) if only inoffensive things may be done or said.

Harder asked what the challenges are for religious freedom going forward, both domestically and globally. Carlson-Thies said that “we have very strong protections for religious freedom in the law, in principle, in our heritage, in the Constitution, [and] the Supreme Court is standing up very strongly for religious freedom.” However, American society is becoming very “diverse.” The Judeo-Christian moral consensus is “evaporating.” There remains a widespread belief that people may differ in obeying God’s commands as believers understand them to be, but a “vanishing of a consensus.” Because there is no religious or moral consensus, it is imperative, he believes, to find ways “to protect everybody.”

Arriaga said that a major problem today in living together in society is the cancel culture. It might be expression in the statement “words are violence.” The attack on Salmon Rushdie is an extreme example of this doctrine. But in some countries, she said, defaming “a prevalent religion” could lead to a “prison or death sentence.” This situation needs to be addressed, she said, by using Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of “thought, conscience, and religion.” We have the right, she said, “to say things that may be offensive to other people … We need to preserve, again, that ‘right to be wrong.’”

Harder asked how we can “build a culture that protects religious freedom.”  Carlson-Thies said important in the regard is for the government to “back off.” The government is not there to solve all problems and give instructions for life. The government can be supportive of the voluntary organizations of civil society. A voluntary organization should not be “shut down” because someone finds it offensive. Working with others about common concerns, and always pressing for the right to do so if necessary, will make for a culture of religious freedom, in which the basic right to religious freedom really exists, more than simply a right “on paper.”

Harder then asked what the future holds for religious freedom. Arriaga believes that virtual reality will enable people who are not physically together “to gather and even worship,” and that for persecuted believers in other countries, this will enable them to “seek out other believers and be able to get together.” This, however, depends on a civil society that supports a culture of freedom. Carlson-Thies said that there is “always the opportunity for people of faith to follow their faith. It doesn’t mean everybody’s going to make it easy for you, but it’s possible.” He referred to the apostle Paul’s petition that “we may live peaceful and quite lives in all godliness and holiness.” He believes that there is always “space” to do this, although he seemingly indicated this may involve privation and persecution. It is this ability to survive, which Christians understand is providential, which gives him hope.

A questioner asked how one can distinguish between protection of religious freedom and the granting of privilege. Carlson-Thies said that religious freedom in fact conflicts with exceptionalism. Everyone has religious freedom. It is a principle, not an exception to rules. If a particular religious group is commonly in court and winning, this does not mean it is privileged, only that its precepts conflict with common opinion and needs the protection of religious freedom.

Another questioner asked what religious freedom public servants have when asked to provide services that violate their understanding of religious precepts, such as a justice of the peace who believes in traditional marriage faced with a same-sex couple wanting to marry. Arriaga and Carlson-Thies both said that all interests need to be considered. Carlson-Thies referred to a system developed in Utah in which any official objecting to same-sex marriage is never assigned to perform such weddings, without this being apparent to the public served. Arriaga mentioned that without accommodation of conscience, LGBT identifying persons might be required to take actions they might believe to be wrong, such as print literature advocating opposite sex only marriage. Carlson-Thies added that “we need to be looking for both/and solutions” rather than focusing on conflicting rights.

When asked in what circumstances a religious organization should be denied non-profit status, Carlson-Thies referred to fraud, direct support for political candidates or parties (as opposed to commentary on political or moral issues) and espousal of racism (which denial, he said, is current national policy) as reasons the state may revoke or deny non-profit status. In general, however, non-profit status is needed to prevent the state from using taxation to punish religious groups (“the power to tax is the power to destroy”) and in view of the charitable and social services they can or do provide.

Is there religious freedom in public schools? Carlson-Thies said that religious speech cannot be suppressed in public schools, and that religious clubs must be allowed if other clubs are allowed. But he said that “more space” needs to be given for “alternative kinds of schools.”

Another questioner asked how religious freedom can be reconciled with objective truth, which is necessary to live and think. Carlson-Thies said that religious freedom is necessary to give space for people to disagree. There in fact is a “world outside of ourselves” in which there are consequences for wrong beliefs and actions. He also said that there should be less “cancel culture,” to allow a greater marketplace of ideas. Arriaga said that “religious freedom is about authenticity, not relativism.” It allows people to live out sincerely held religious beliefs, while not infringing on those of others.

In conclusion, Carlson-Thies said that religious freedom must be lived out. It must be important enough to insist on (and this writer would add it must be important enough to take the consequences if it is not respected). Otherwise, it is simply words of law on paper. Arriaga said that if religious freedom is important to you, you must “be a troublemaker.” She said that “great things never come out of a comfort zone.” It is up to the concerned public to “establish a culture of religious freedom.”

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