Religious freedom is a core American value. The First Amendment grants us the freedom to believe as we choose, with respect for the autonomy of others to do the same.
What Is Religious Freedom?
Religious freedom is one of several fundamental rights outlined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It includes two complementary protections – freedom of religion and freedom from religion.
Freedom of religion protects our ability to follow the religious tradition of our choice, or no religion at all, without facing discrimination or punishment. Freedom from religion prevents the government from codifying religious beliefs into law, favoring religion over non-religion, or giving special treatment to adherents of one faith and not others.
These protections are necessary to ensure religion and democracy thrive. But there is a concerted effort underway by the Religious Right to distort the meaning of religious freedom. Members of this movement seek to enshrine their beliefs into law, undermine basic civil rights protections, and concentrate power in the hands of a select few – at the expense of everyone else.
Interfaith Alliance brings together Americans of diverse religious and philosophical perspectives to protect the separation of religion and government and ensure that all of us maintain the right to believe as we choose.
Religious Freedom is Not Unlimited
People of faith are sometimes permitted special accommodations based on their beliefs. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), passed in 1993, established a standard for the courts to determine whether someone should receive an accommodation under an otherwise neutral law.
For instance, a federal court found in favor of a Sikh college student who was barred from joining the Army ROTC because of his unshorn hair, turban, and beard. As a result, he received an accommodation under RFRA enabling him to enlist without foregoing these articles of his faith.
RFRA, and religious freedom more broadly, protects personal religious expression and practice – so long as it does not harm third parties. But the Religious Right often cites “religious freedom” when seeking exemptions that would hurt others.
Certain constitutional truths may be “self-evident”, but they are not self-executing. The promise of religious freedom in the United States has often fallen short of its practice.
Our nation is incredibly religiously and culturally diverse. But over the course of our history, many faith communities have experienced the harms of religious coercion, where members of a particular tradition were compelled to relinquish or violate their beliefs to satisfy the demands of social or political forces. The legacy of forced conversion among enslaved peoples and Native Americans, coupled with the professional and social exclusion experienced by other minority faiths, continues to inform the lived experience of that essential promise – to believe as we choose – for millions of Americans.