What does Religious Freedom/Liberty Mean For Us Today?

Until recently, my understanding and curiosity of religious freedom/liberty (they’re used interchangeably, yes?) was nothing more than a few eyebrow raises and lines of “Hmm, strange.” But then I found myself on a phone call with a well-informed woman who knew her history. She broke down the history of religious freedom/liberty in the US, and how it is still affecting us to this day. I now find myself having more of a physiological reaction to this idea that our religion grants us freedom or liberty to make decisions that can (and mostly) further injustice.

I should probably first differentiate the Constitutional right to practice religion and religious liberty. There is Constitutional freedom in that, as an individual, we are granted the ability to say I choose Islam or Buddhism or Christianity, and we will not be penalized for that. This is necessary and good for everyone. What I am pointing to is where our individual choices begin to have rippling effects on society.

Let’s start with what I learned on this phone call. Even the idea of religious liberty was nonexistent until, you guessed it, the Civil Rights era. Shortly after Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the ruling of Brown v. The Board of Education came out, many people still disagreed with the idea – let alone the act – of desegregation and racial equality. So, what did Bob Jones University (BJU) do in retaliation for having its IRS tax-exempt status stripped when they still desired segregation within their university policy? They claimed religious liberty.

They asserted the right to maintain segregation – forbidding inter-racial dating and marriage, unmarried African Americans, and advocating for such – based on their understanding and interpretation of Christian scripture. Not only was BJU standing on this ground, so was Jerry Falwell’s Christian university (now known as Liberty University). After taking their case all the way to the Supreme Court and losing, something shifted within fundamental Christianity. The so-called “Moral Majority” was born.

To keep this short, sweet and to the point, the (racist) player who spearheaded this new movement was Paul Weyrich. His disgust with a ruling before BJU got this idea started. After the decision on BJU, it took off. Weyrich recognized that if he wanted to use personal (Christian) morals in order to discriminate, it was easier to frame it as morality and find a new way to get to it. How did they do that? Abortion rights. I could go on and on from here, but I won’t.

“But Falwell and Weyrich, having tapped into the ire of evangelical leaders, were also savvy enough to recognize that organizing grassroots evangelicals to defend racial discrimination would be a challenge. It had worked to rally the leaders, but they needed a different issue if they wanted to mobilize evangelical voters on a large scale.” – Politico

So where does this bring us today with regards to religious freedom/liberty? Since it’s birth in the 60s, it has, like a virus, morphed into recent actions that look so:

  1. Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission – a Supreme Court decision that sided with Masterpiece Cakeshop’s owner on the right to choose his religious beliefs in whether or not he wants to provide a service to anyone. In this case, a same-sex couple. Big picture: this is not about a cake. This is about a public service that was denied based on religious, personal beliefs. Before this case was taken to the Supreme Court, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission ruled in the same-sex couples’ favor.
  2. Male Walgreens pharmacist denies to fill woman’s prescription for medication to induce an abortion based on his religious beliefs. Big picture: woman and hopeful second-time mother just found out her pregnancy was not viable (no heartbeat was found) and was moving to induce a miscarriage. She was denied a service based on religious liberties rule that the company offers.
  3. CVS pharmacist denies hormones to a transitioning woman. Big picture: This is not the pharmacist’s business! This was done illegally, but done so on the grounds of religious liberty.
  4. The Supreme Courts ruling to uphold the travel ban on Muslim majority countries. I needn’t say more — this is absolutely racist, Islamophobic and xenophobic.
  5. Currently, an amendment attached to a bill awaits a vote in the Senate that removes any penalty for adoption agencies (specifically religious agencies) who choose to deny those within the LGBTQ community the right to adopt. Big picture: this move is pure religious liberty that discriminates against those who choose to give a child a loving home. It flies directly in the face of what this whole post is pointing to.
  6. Though not our home, Israel just declared itself a Jewish state. This eliminates the idea of a Muslim population. This is troubling, considering how this Administration seems to cross boundaries on behalf of Israel.

I’ve talked with a few of you on this idea of religious freedom/liberty, and I have enjoyed your perspectives. I know we are still a long way off from looking like places like Iran or the Philippines. But I also believe it is incredibly important to not become too stagnant or complacent when rulings and situations like these arise. From this angle, I ask what’s to stop the unfolding of laws regarding racial discrimination? We already have those in high positions at the White House who hold fundamentalist and racist views on how Christianity should look.

As I tweeted after the Inauguration of 45: “Our descent into nationalism is something that should keep Christians wide awake. Remember: Jesus always challenged the ruler of the day.” And I still mean this. Wholeheartedly.

There is so much more history packed into this idea of charities, government, and religious freedom. I went full nerd, and if you want to join me, here’s a few articles I tapped into in my research:

https://constitutionallawreporter.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Bob-Jones-University-v.-United-States.pdf.

https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/religious-right-real-origins-107133_Page4.html

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