Sutherland Institute launches new series: Religious Freedom 101

Written by William C. Duncan

February 14, 2020

On January 6, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave his eighth State of the Union address and articulated “four essential freedoms” which the nation, now involved in the Second World War, would seek to make secure. The second of these freedoms (joining free speech, freedom from want, and freedom from fear) was “freedom of every person to worship God in his own way.”

It seems safe to assume that the inclusion of this idea was not controversial at the time. However, to the contemporary reader, phrases like “religious freedom” and “religious liberty” now feel contested, even contentious.

Perhaps one way to understand this is by analogy to an unusual feature of the English language: homonyms. Homonyms (or homographs) are words that are spelled and pronounced the same but have different meanings. Foil can refer to a material for wrapping food or the act of preventing something from happening (she foiled the robbery attempt). An engagement is a formal plan to marry and a description of involvement (the level of engagement with the material was high).

A particularly interesting homonym is the antiquated word “cleave,” which can mean split apart or adhere strongly to – same word, polar opposite meanings.

Something similar seems to be happening with the concept of religious liberty.

Is it a core freedom under unprecedented attack?

Is it a misleading idea that cloaks a darker agenda of prejudice and discrimination?

The answer may depend on whom you ask. The same term can now have very different meanings. As a result, settled understandings now vary, giving rise to related controversies:

  • Why do we treat religious freedom as being distinct from a more generic freedom of speech or expression?
  • Does religious freedom encompass only what happens in a believer’s mind or within church walls?
  • Should we – or to what degree should we – accommodate religious practices that would otherwise be regulated by law?

Sutherland Institute will be addressing these and related questions about religious freedom in detail with a series called Religious Freedom 101.

To provide some context for understanding current controversies, we will first provide a historical review of religious freedom in the United States. Then we’ll examine the legal rules created to protect this freedom. Finally, we will look at the cultural and political debates that have made what was once a widely shared ideal into something that is increasingly contested.

We will also describe and explain some of the specific proposals for addressing religious freedom, their implications, and how they might be adjusted to ensure a sustainable protection. Scattered throughout the series will be opportunities to gain an understanding of the secular benefits to society from strong legal protections for religious belief and practice, and chances to gain insight from current events pertinent to religious freedom.

Gaining a common understanding of fundamental human and civil rights – a component of civics education – is an essential part of “a republic, if you can keep it,” to borrow from Benjamin Franklin. We invite you to join us in learning more about this constitutionally protected right that we call religious freedom. 

Click the following links to read the series: part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4.

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