Government leaders should not pit other interests against religious freedom

Written by William C. Duncan

December 17, 2020

While religious freedom is sometime discussed as a topic of controversy, a recent national survey found that a very strong majority (78%) of Americans supported “freedom for people or groups to choose not to participate in actions or work that violates their sincere religious beliefs and conscience.”

One of the practical reasons this is significant is that with the change in presidential administrations, speculation (and advice) about the relative priority to give to religious freedom concerns is rising.

An article in the Deseret News noted President-elect Joe Biden’s support for the Equality Act, which expressly limits religious freedom protections. The article also describes an alternative approach that attempts to balance the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity into federal civil rights laws with specific protections for religious organizations and people of faith who want to conduct their activities consistent with their beliefs about sexual morality.

Some of the discussion about these types of decisions poses the relevant question as either/or; emphasizing religious freedom, for instance, is said to interfere with emphasis on other human rights.

This approach of pitting other rights or priorities against – rather than trying to accommodate – religious freedom is counterproductive. Limiting our first freedoms for the sake of other goals is short-sighted, since those first freedoms, include religious freedom, often form the basis of other social goods. It also provokes opposition and is contrary to the express language of the U.S. Constitution.

It is also unnecessary as a practical and even a political matter.

Sutherland has recently noted some of the survey findings in the Religious Freedom Index published by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. In addition to general information, the index includes some important insights into how Americans value religious freedom, including when protecting that freedom might appear to be at odds with other policy goals.

For instance, 74% supported the “freedom of employees to practice their faith at work by wearing religious clothing or refusing to work on certain days of the week.” Support for the right of people of faith “to hold any view they want without the threat of being harassed or silenced” was 67%. Even where a right was described in a way that highlighted controversy, “freedom to practice one’s religion in daily life or at work even if it creates an imposition or inconvenience for others,” 62% were in support.

Turning to very specific potential conflicts, the index reported strong support for religious freedom on four measures:

  • 73% supported “freedom for people to run their business or private organizations according to their religious beliefs.”
  • 70% supported “freedom to believe that certain behaviors and activities are immoral, sinful, and should be avoided in our society.”
  • 75% supported “freedom for any individual or group to believe that marriage is the union of a man and woman without having to worry about facing discrimination, penalties, or fines from government.”
  • 68% supported “freedom for religious groups or organizations to make their own employment and leadership decisions without government interference.”

These are the measures that a “fairness for all” approach would ensure are protected when adding protections through legislation for sexual orientation and gender identity to federal law.

In fact, only 12% of respondents thought “religious freedom is protected too much in our country.”

It is clear that Americans recognize the value of accommodating interests that might initially appear to be incompatible and to honor both. This is a sound approach for government leaders as they formulate policies in the new administration.

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