This election season was full of highs and lows. On religious freedom, perhaps the lowest point came when the presidentially appointed chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights embraced extreme, ideological rhetoric by labeling religious liberty and religious freedom as “code words” for “discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Christian supremacy or any form of intolerance.”
Contrast that with the more thoughtful words of President Barack Obama: “Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square.”
The truth behind the president’s comment, and the truth found in America’s founding documents, point toward a new dialogue in our communities about religious freedom, grounded in the principles and values of equality, liberty, tolerance and fairness.
Our Constitution affirms the principle of religious freedom in Article VI, which prohibits religion-based qualifications for public office, and the First Amendment, which forbids the creation of an official state church and prevents interference with the free exercise of religion by citizens.
These protections have been supplemented more recently by laws that prevent the government from placing substantial burdens on religious practice without a compelling reason, like protecting public health or safety.
These laws reflect America’s understanding of the vital role of religion in a society of free and equal individuals. Religion builds strong communities, cultivates moral people who respect one another’s differences and cares for people with needs beyond the limits of government assistance. Historically, religion also generated much of the fervor for the civil rights movement, the abolition of slavery and even the nation’s founding.
Respect for human dignity requires that we extend the equality, liberty and fairness sought by all Americans to the core beliefs, identity and expression of religious individuals. If the principle of nondiscrimination becomes a tool for undermining the equal rights of religious Americans in the workplace, housing, criminal proceedings and exchanges in the market, we will simply have traded one form of inequality, unfairness and intolerance for another.
A renewed dialogue on religious freedom will explore how religious belief and expression can be protected and encouraged alongside accommodations for differing views, identities and lifestyles by applying the principles of equality, fairness, tolerance and liberty.
Equality means that privileges available to all citizens should not be denied to religious people solely because of their beliefs. For instance, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops should not be excluded — solely because the conference does not support abortions — from participating in a program that provides grants to organizations fighting human trafficking. Similarly, individuals’ faith should not be a factor in considerations for government office or public employment.
Fairness means that religious organizations should be protected in their right to adopt and maintain standards for conduct. Faith-based nonprofits must be free to require employees or participants to respect church teachings. Religious schools ought to be free to hire teachers who will faithfully support the school’s teaching, and they should be able to ask their students to obey the religious teachings of the school without government interference.
Tolerance means that in professions that are legally regulated by the government (such as through licensing or accreditation), new regulations should be structured to accommodate the religious exercise of those being regulated. They must also not create religious tests or requirements that exclude people of faith from employment within the profession.
Liberty means that religious organizations’ tax-exempt status should be protected like the status of other nonprofit organizations. Such status protects these organizations from oppressive ideological or doctrinal tests for eligibility.
If citizens will engage in an elevated dialogue on the meaning of equality, fairness, tolerance and liberty in regard to religious freedom in their communities, we will find the hope that comes through increased understanding and unexpected agreement. That will create an environment where solutions to America’s most controversial issues will be found.
William C. Duncan, J.D., is the director of the Center for Family and Society at Sutherland Institute, a think tank in Salt Lake City advocating for a free market economy, civil society and community-driven solutions.