10 Things You Need to Know About Religious Liberty

10 Things You Need to Know About Religious Liberty
Setting the Record Straight

Religious liberty is a treasured American value. But over the past
several months, it has become a lightning rod for debate. To hear the
dire warnings of conservatives, you would think that religious liberty
in this country is hanging by a thread. Catholic bishops and their
allies are sending alerts to dioceses across the country that say,
?Act on your beliefs while you still can.? The bishops are planning a
national ?Fortnight for Freedom? campaign from June 21 to July 4 to
protest what they claim are unprecedented attacks on their religious
liberty. And at a recent conference, a conservative speaker said that
the government?s assaults on religious freedom could effectively
repeal the First Amendment.

Such claims are apocalyptic. They are also wrong. The truth is that
religious liberty is alive and well in this country. Being able to
worship freely, to bring your faith into the public square, and to be
free of the government imposing religion on you?these are all are
hard-won achievements that should make us proud.

It is true that the religious liberty of some Americans continues to
be challenged. For instance, many Muslim American communities have
faced opposition to building mosques and unwarranted scrutiny from the
police and FBI. Unfortunately, these infringements are missing from
the Catholic bishops? complaints. And that?s partly because the
bishops and their allies want to claim religious liberty as theirs
alone, even as they misuse it to advance their policy agenda.

Sadly, religious freedom is becoming a divisive wedge and a partisan
political weapon, and this distortion of a core American value is bad
for politics and religion. That?s why it?s important to rebut alarmist
claims and set the record straight about what religious liberty is?and
what it isn?t.

Here are 10 things you need to know about religious liberty:

1. Religious liberty is alive and well in America. And the public
knows it. According to a poll by the Public Religion Research
Institute, a majority of Americans (56 percent) do not believe
religious liberty is threatened. This includes majorities of
Catholics, white mainline Protestants, minority Protestants, and the
unaffiliated. What?s more, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life
reports that a majority of Americans pray daily, attend worship
services regularly, and say that religion is very important in their

2. The government requirement that employers include contraceptive
coverage in their health care plans does not threaten religious
liberty. The Health and Human Services regulation provides a religious
exemption to houses of worship and related religious institutions.
Moreover, religiously affiliated institutions like hospitals, schools,
and charities that object to birth control will not have to pay for
contraceptive coverage because of an additional accommodation the
administration offers. This policy protects the religious liberty of
institutions, as well as that of female employees who use
contraception in accordance with their conscience and values.

3. Marriage equality laws do not threaten religious liberty. Seven
states (Connecticut, Vermont, New York, New Hampshire, Washington,
Massachusetts, and Iowa) and Washington, D.C., have legalized same-sex
marriage. Some have done so through legislation. Each state that
passed marriage equality laws has included religious protections in
their laws exempting clergy from performing same-sex marriages and
granting immunity from lawsuits to religious institutions for refusing
to provide goods and services related to same-sex marriage.

4. The government is not waging a war on religion. Despite claims by
Catholic bishops that the current administration is engaged in a war
against them, federal funding to Catholic organizations has increased
during the past two years. Groups getting more money include Catholic
Relief services ($12.45 million in 2008 to $57.89 million in 2011),
Catholic Charities USA ($440 million in 2008 to $554 million in 2010),
the Catholic Medical Mission Board ($500,000 in 2008 to $7 million in
2011), and others.

5. Religious liberty has two components: freedom to worship and
practice your faith, and freedom from government establishment of
religion. The First Amendment contains a free exercise clause and an
establishment clause. Both are essential. While much attention is
being paid to the first part?free exercise?the second part is equally
important. No one should be pressured into religious beliefs or
coerced into practices they do not freely choose. The separation of
church and state protects these twin freedoms and all Americans should
value that protection, no matter what their beliefs or politics are.

6. Religious liberty is not an absolute. Our country has always had
civil laws that may limit religious liberty. We passed laws making it
illegal to practice plural marriage, although it was a core tenet of
the Mormon faith. Parents who are Christian Scientists are obligated
to seek medical help for their seriously ill child even when doing so
violates their religion. And Justice Antonin Scalia, in a Supreme
Court case about Native Americans who were fired for smoking peyote as
part of their religious practice, wrote the majority opinion upholding
the firing, saying that if religious beliefs were superior to the ?law
of the land,? it would make ?every citizen a law unto himself.?

7. Not everything that claims to be religious liberty is religious
liberty. Simply claiming it doesn?t make it so. Case in point: a
ballot initiative in Florida that would amend the state constitution
to allow public funding to go directly to houses of worship and
religious institutions. Sponsored by Citizens for Religious Freedom
and Non-Discrimination, the ballot initiative would threaten religious
freedom by violating the First Amendment?s guarantee of separation of
church and state through direct state funding of religious

Likewise, a ballot initiative in North Dakota would amend the state
constitution by forbidding the government from placing virtually any
imposition upon an individual?s or organization?s religious liberty.
Sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and others, the
proposed law is vaguely worded and dangerous. It could undo some of
our most basic laws that protect against domestic violence, child
abuse, and more. The initiative is also ironic. As noted in an
editorial in InForum, a North Dakota news website, ?groups and
individuals who say they want government out of their lives are
backing a constitutional amendment that would open the door to more
government intrusion in the form of the courts and likely legislative
action precipitated by litigation.?

8. There are real threats to religious liberty in America today.
Although not included in the Catholic bishops? list of attacks on
religious liberty, Muslim Americans continue to be threatened for
trying to build mosques and face unwarranted government scrutiny as
well as unnecessary restrictions on their faith and religious
practices. Muslim advocates recently filed a lawsuit against the New
York City police department for spying on Muslim-owned businesses,
community centers, and mosques, in violation of their First Amendment
rights. In addition, harsh anti-immigration laws in states such as
Alabama threaten the religious liberty of clergy and others for
following their faith when it comes to assisting undocumented

9. Disputes over religious liberty are part of our history. Just as
many Muslim Americans are viewed with suspicion because of their
faith, Catholic and Jewish Americans have been targets in the past.
When Catholic immigrants came to this country, they were viewed as
unpatriotic and pagan because of their religion. Their churches were
attacked, their property was burned, and some were killed in outbreaks
of mob violence. Likewise, Jewish Americans faced anti-Semitism
throughout much of our history. They were not only discriminated
against in housing, employment, education, and civic organizations but
also targeted by the Ku Klux Klan, lynched, and killed.

In addition, the government favored certain religions over others
during our history and even before we were a nation. Officials in the
Massachusetts Bay Colony collected taxes to support the Puritan church
and compelled attendance at its services. In Virginia the government
paid the salaries of Anglican clergy.

Needless to say, the United States has made significant progress in
promoting religious liberty and recognizing its value to democracy.

10. Religious liberty will stay on the front burner in the coming
months. To promote their claims of religious liberty, the Catholic
Bishops? Fortnight for Freedom campaign will include ?prayer,
education and action.? Some participants may commit acts of civil
disobedience that will get headlines. At a conference last month on
?Rising Threats to Religious Freedom,? conservatives announced plans
to create religious liberty caucuses in every state, introduce model
?religious liberty? legislation, train state legislators, and organize
grassroots multifaith communities to work for passage of the laws.

What?s ahead
Apocalyptic rhetoric is on the rise so be on the lookout for extremist
claims. Find alternative voices and views. The truth is that
conservatives are often not the supporters of religious liberty that
they claim to be. Many of their efforts would actually weaken the
separation of church and state, and along with it, the religious
liberty of millions of Americans. Requiring religious institutions to
abide by the Constitution is not discriminating against them?nor is it
discrimination to require religious institutions to balance their
rights and responsibilities with those of others in a pluralistic

Contrary to what conservatives would have you believe, our government
is not waging a war on religion. Instead we are seeing a vigorous
disagreement about the role of civil law and religious liberty?and a
healthy debate about citizenship and religion. It?s democracy in
action. And it deserves celebration along with religious liberty.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy
Initiative at American Progress.


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