What Does Freedom of Religion Mean?

There seems to be a great deal of confusion these days on both sides of the political aisle with regard to the concept of freedom of religion, especially in context of the Constitution of the United States. The First Amendment says, in part, “Congress shall make no law regarding the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Subsequent court rulings have indicated that this proscription applies to not only Congress, but the Federal Government and the governments of the various states as well. Unfortunately, many people today seem to think that this only applies to religions that they either practice or do not see as problematic. Each side of the political divide applies this conditional freedom of religion in a different context to suit their political goals. I expect most people will agree with half of this little diatribe and vehemently disagree with the other half. Which half you agree with will depend on the side of the political fence on which you find yourself. So, if I upset you with the first half, read on, you will likely be nodding in agreement when you get to the second half.

On the left, people more and more seem to equate freedom of worship with freedom of religion. In other words, they believe that as long as they do not interfere with my ability to go and participate in whatever religious ceremonies I wish to participate in, I have freedom of worship. However, religion goes deeper than participating in worship rituals. Religion, at least in my mind, should be at the core of a person’s life. It involves doing certain things and avoiding others in order to grow more and more into the person that God created one to be. That means that if a person, based on their religion, believes that something is immoral, he or she should not be forced, simply because he or she runs a business, to participate in that act that they believe, based on their religion, to be immoral.

For instance, if a Catholic Sunday School teacher asked a Baptist photographer to photograph a First Communion Mass, the photographer would be well within his rights to say, “I’m sorry, but I believe that the Catholic understanding of Communion is idolatrous and I cannot in good conscience memorialize that idolatry with my art.” As a Catholic, I find his theology to be quite wrong, but I also respect his right to make this decision based on his faith and would suggest the Sunday School teacher go find a different photographer. Under the First Amendment, he is practicing his religion, and forgoing a paycheck to stand for his convictions.

There was a time when this was viewed as a noble thing. To me, it still is. If that same photographer were asked to photograph a same-sex wedding, I believe he would also have the right to say, “I’m sorry, but I believe that homosexual acts are sinful, and that marriage is instituted by God to be between a man and a woman, and my memorializing this ceremony could be viewed as me condoning things that I believe to be sinful, therefore I must decline the request.” Again, he is forgoing a paycheck to be faithful to his beliefs.

Now, if the same photographer were to refuse to photograph Catholics in general, or members of the LGBT community in general, I would have a problem with it, as simply photographing a person could not be seen as promoting either a particular understanding of the Eucharist or someone’s sex life and views on marriage. In the instance of the First Communion or the same-sex wedding, the photography could easily be seen as promoting things the photographer believes to be wrong and the government has no business, especially given the First Amendment, to compel him to provide service in either circumstance. However, in the case of banning Catholics or LGBT persons, that would, in my opinion, fall under the umbrella of discrimination and the government would have a vested interest in insisting that he correct this practice. But, many on the left say that even in the case of declining to perform services for certain ceremonies, or events based on the message those events promote rather than the community, that in those cases, the person being refused service is suffering from discrimination. I, however, see a profound difference between the two situations.

On the right, there seems to be a very pronounced bias against Muslims. Some suggest that Muslims should not be allowed to immigrate to the US. Others suggest that mosques should, as a matter of standard procedure, be monitored for dangerous rhetoric. This is based on fear that stems from the numerous attacks that have been carried out in the US, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East by people who claim to be acting in the name of Islam. They seem to think that there is, or at least should be a clause tacked onto the end of the free practice clause to make it read, “or prohibiting the free practice thereof, except in the case of Islam.” I have had people tell me that Islam is not a religion, or that as a religion, it seeks to bring about the destruction of the United States and as such should not enjoy the protection of the First Amendment.

To be clear I want those who perpetrate violence or conspire to perpetrate violence punished to the full extent of the law. But we should not punish one person for the acts of another, just because they share the same faith. As a Catholic, I do not believe that I should be viewed as a pederast because other members of my faith have been guilty of this crime. As a political conservative, I have always held that we should base our views of a person on that person’s behavior, not the acts of others that belong to the same group. The right to freedom of religion is, in my opinion, the second most important right we have, after our right to life. How we relate to God is, for many, central to our identity as a person. This is true for Muslims as well as Christians.

And I remember from my history classes that 100 years ago, it was Catholics like myself who were the followers of a strange religion, loyal to a foreign dictator and couldn’t be trusted to be loyal, patriotic Americans. But as it turns out, a greater percentage of Catholics now join the military or serve as first responders than any other faith group in our nation. And when I visited Arlington National Cemetery a few years ago, among the countless crosses, and the many Stars of David marking the resting places of men and women who had served in our military, I also saw more than a few crescents and most of those men had died fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, against the same extremists that far too many people want to lump them in with.

And going beyond the Constitutional and legal rights of people to practice their religion, Those of us who are Christians have an even higher calling. We are commanded to welcome the stranger, love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us. And Christ also says that His followers can be identified as those who follow his commands, that they will abide in Him and He in them. So, when I say we should welcome and assist refugees whose countries are being destroyed by civil war, I do so in response to Christ’s command and out of respect for the First Amendment. Yes, we should vet them as best as possible, and yes, there should be a reasonable limit placed on the numbers, and yes, I hope that the majority of financial aid for these refugees will come from charitable organizations rather than the government. I’m not blind to the fact that terrorists can, and have, come into Europe with the refugees. And I realize the same can happen in the US. So by all means, let us be vigilant in the screening process; but I believe if we were to apply a religious litmus test, as some have suggested, that would be not only a violation of the First Amendment, but also a violation of Christ’s edicts.

In summary, consistency is important to me. If I say I believe in freedom of religion, I have to understand that this freedom applies to religions other than mine. So, the government cannot, under the First Amendment, deny services (such as immigration processing) to someone based solely on their religion. It also means that neither the government, nor another individual has the right to compel anyone to do something that violates his or her faith. You may agree or disagree with one, the other, or even both parts of this, but thank you for taking the time to read it.