Religious Freedom: A Primer

There seems to be some confusion in our political and cultural discourse lately about what, exactly, constitutes “religious freedom”.

Rep. Lynn Luker had a bill before the Idaho legislature a few years back that he said was intended to protect religious liberty. “Republican lawmakers on the panel said they favored the bill to expand an existing 14-year-old Idaho law, making it tougher to sue people who cite their religious faith for not serving, among others, gay and lesbian customers.”

The state attorney general’s office said the bill was unconstitutional. It would not defend religious freedom, but enforce religious discrimination. That bill failed. Now that the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of Marriage Equality across all 50 states, we should expect to see bills popping up around the country again, claiming to be about “religious freedom”.

Religious freedom means you and I and everyone else has the choice to worship, or not worship, the Divine creator however we may like to do that. It means I can go to a Presbyterian Church and preach from the pulpit (which I do each week), or it means I could determine to worship Allah in a mosque, or attend Shabbat services at the synagogue. It means I could worship Thor and Wotan and hope to end up in Valhalla. I could worship a tree. I could worship at St. Arbucks while reading the liturgy of the New York Times.

And while I am at the particular house of worship I choose to use my religious freedom to attend, the particular religion can choose to impart particular rules or customs on its adherents.

So the Catholic Church is allowed to declare women can’t serve as priests, even if the Idaho Human Rights Codes bar discrimination against women. That’s religious freedom.

The Catholic Church can also instruct its adherents not to use birth control or have an abortion. That’s religious freedom.

82% of American Catholics believe birth control is morally acceptable, despite what their tradition dictates. That’s also religious freedom.

Religious freedom DOES NOT mean the Catholic Church (or the church of Hobby Lobby, for that matter) can prohibit non-catholics (or Hobby Lobby employees who do not share the owners religious tradition) from having access to birth control through health care plans. That is discrimination.

Religious freedom means nobody can force you to use birth control if you are opposed to it on religious grounds. Several traditions of Islam require women to be veiled when in public. When a Muslim woman is free to wear a veil in public, that is religious freedom.

Requiring women who do not follow Islam to be veiled (in this country, at least) is discrimination, not religious freedom. Religious freedom bills seek to enshrine discrimination against citizens who are Gay, Lesbian, or Transgendered in our legal code, all in the name of religious freedom.

There is some confusion in the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision about what ministers are required to do. NO ministers will be forced to marry gay people. NO ministers are forced to marry any people. I have told couples who wanted me to marry them that I would not–sometimes because I didn’t want to sign my name on a union that seemed problematic, and sometimes because I was already booked on the day they wanted to get married. For 3 years, I didn’t sign any marriage licenses AT ALL while we waited for equality in Idaho.

It’s an odd thing when ministers act as agents of the state, if you think about it. Why would we want ministers to sign marriage licenses on behalf of the state?  States have never compelled ministers to be agents of the state. Many ministers (and the couples they marry) have appreciated the convenience of being able to have clergy sign licenses. Many ministers have chosen not to participate in state marriage. NOTHING in the Supreme Court’s ruling will change either the freedom of conscience around marriage OR the odd tension between clergy and state. The ministers who are threatening to set themselves on fire over this are upset, not because they will be forced to do something (which they will not be forced to do) but because their world view is not winning. They want religious freedom for a narrowly prescribed group of people.

What the mainly Republican supporters of these unconstitutional and amoral bills are actually seeking is the opposite of religious freedom. If you, and the church you attend, want to greet LGBTQ Idahoans at the door to their sanctuary and tell them they are less-than, unworthy, and undeserving of God’s love and mercy, that would be a really mean and nasty thing to do, but it would be religious freedom.

Religious freedom doesn’t allow for one to enforce their views on anyone outside the doors of their house of worship. Once you leave your church and interact in society, you need to leave your religious practice at the door of your church and treat everyone you meet with fair and honest behavior.

I’d also suggest you look at your faith and ask a few questions.

1. What does it say about the God you worship, if once you leave the doors of your sanctuary, you need to judge and discriminate against your fellow citizens in order to faithfully worship said God? It is one thing to not want to be gay married. That’s religious freedom. What does it say about your God, though, if he won’t allow others to practice their religious freedom and be married? How strong and powerful could your God be if he needs protection from gay marriage in the public sector?

2. For the Christian flavored fans of discrimination, what, exactly, do you think Jesus was talking about when he was asked about the greatest commandment and the answer was this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:25-27)

Religious people can disagree with homosexuality all they want and they can choose to privilege a few verses of scripture over the rest of the Gospel.  I support your religious freedom to do that.

But here’s how that plays out in the public square in a society with religious freedom—

–you are free to choose not to be gay, have gay sex, or get gay married. Nobody will force that on you.

–you are free not to welcome LGBTQ people to worship with you.

And that’s about it.

Your religious freedom to not choose to be gay only involves your own self and you can’t impose it on anyone else, and nobody should impose it on you. That’s what freedom actually means. Our legislators are free to believe what they want to believe when they are in church, but when they are in the statehouse, they are elected to work for ALL Idahoans.

And to the LGBTQ Idahoans who have been turned away and excluded from their faith communities, I’m sorry. You deserve better than that from people who worship the God of peace, love, and mercy. I’d be happy to welcome you to the congregation I serve or help you find another one that would be a good fit for you because that exclusionary message of Christianity is not preached in many good churches I know.

These religious “freedom” bills do not speak for me or my faith.

“They will know we are Christians by our love” is the refrain of a song I grew up singing at church camp.  Not by our bigotry, our discrimination, or our exclusion. By our love.

To my brothers and sisters in Christ, we need to sing that song loudly and with courage to a world that seems to have forgotten that message.

Let us live that refrain so all of God’s children will know safety, welcome, equality, and justice.

21 thoughts on “Religious Freedom: A Primer

  1. Good post Reverend–Jesus went to the cross for all people, not just for a group of people. The beauty of God’s love is that He allows us to make choices in our lives, sometimes they are good choices, sometimes we may discover that we made a wrong choice. But you know what–God still loves us. I serve 2 congregations that accept anyone into the church.. We don’t judge based on race, nationality, or what sexual preference you prefer. Folks do know that in all things that we do God’s Word is Primary. God is the same yesterday, today and forever, when folks come and hear me preach, I don’t preach hell-fire-and damnation-I preach to encourage folks to embrace the love, grace and mercy that God has for them–Folks are struggling today, financially, physically, spiritually, and mentally and we should not cast stones-we can only try and live out the words that Jesus told the woman at the well–,” GO and Sin no More” We try but we fail daily and we go on because of God’s Grace–We go one and try and encourage people to go along with us so that we all can receive the bounty of God’s Love–

    God Bless
    Reverend Scottie Bramlett of the SCUMC


  2. Thank you. Have you already shared this blog with Rep. Luker? I am one of his constituents in District 15 and have already written him about my opposition to his bill and the reasons. You have stated my thoughts/conclusions from a different perspective/approach. With your permission I would love to forward your words on to Rep. Luker.


  3. Regarding the “business owner” defense of this hateful legislation, I keep wondering just how the business owner is going to know whether the customer is gay or straight (and therefore, whether or not the customer should be served or rejected). Maybe straight people should try going into a business and “acting gay” (whatever that is) and see what happens. Might result in some interesting lawsuits.


    • Someone is proposing that if this legislation goes forward, it adds a requirement that businesses who choose to claim “religious liberty” to discriminate would put a sign in the window of their establishment that reads “GLBTQ people not welcome here”. I love that idea. It is clear for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters that they would not be safe in that business. It is clear to me I don’t want to frequent that establishment and give them my business. Win win.


  4. I will respectfully say however Marci, that one cannot choose their sexual orientation, as far as I understand it. I didn’t wake up at puberty and say, “I choose to be sexually attracted to men, vs. women.” the only choice people have in this regard, is whether or not they want to act on it. You can choose to be celibate, you can choose to be with someone of the opposite gender. But is that any way to live, by denying who you are? It may make some religious fundamentalists happy, but living a lie is dehumanizing. And I know God doesn’t like that one bit. I wish this statement, “you are free to choose not to be gay” had been worded differently. having said that, I myself understand what you were getting at, in context of everything else you said. Unfortunately, less intelligent people will think otherwise.


    • I agree with you completely. My point, though, to people who think it is a choice, (which it isn’t) is to NOT choose it if that is what makes them happy. They don’t have freedom of religion to make that (somewhat false) choice or any other choice for anybody else.
      I didn’t want this post to be about people disputing whether or not sexual orientation is a choice. While it is important, it is a post for another day.
      Thanks for commenting and clarifying.


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  9. Pretty good primer on religious freedom. While I agree with the direction of your argument you emphasize freedom of religion in a “house of worship.” My church doesn’t have a house, building, or location. (We’ve got an office). That leaves me a little concerned. Our freedoms can become to closely associated with ownership of property.


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