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What one religious freedom expert expects to happen in 2020

Supporters of LGBT rights and protesters with opposing opinion stand face to face in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019, in Washington.
Manuel Balce Ceneta, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — The past year involved plenty of religious freedom-related conflict. 2020 will likely bring even more, according to Luke Goodrich, an attorney who has represented nuns, Native Americans, Muslims and many other people of faith in court.

The Supreme Court has already agreed to hear cases on LGBTQ rights, abortion and religious education. It may also weigh in on the rights of faith-based adoption agencies and religious employees.

Congress will consider efforts to balance LGBTQ rights with religious freedom protections. The presidential election will feature debates over a variety of faith-related topics, including tax exemptions for churches and access to government funds.

Additionally, interest in organized religion will continue to decline. Disaffiliation and growing religious diversity will exacerbate tensions over who deserves religious freedom protections and if religious freedom outweighs other rights.

Many people of faith are ill-equipped to handle such contentious battles, said Goodrich, a Salt Lake City-based vice president and senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and author of “Free to Believe: The Battle Over Religious Liberty in America.” They rarely understand their rights or the most significant threats facing religious freedom today.

Goodrich said he wrote his book with the goal of clearing up common misconceptions and giving Christians reasons for hope. He wants to share his religious freedom expertise with others and play a role in reducing the conflict surrounding this First Amendment right.

“The goal of the book is to use my experience on the front lines to help ordinary Americans understand why religious freedom matters, how it’s threatened and what we can do to preserve it,” he said.

This month, Goodrich spoke to the Deseret News about the problems facing religious freedom and shared some 2020 predictions.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Luke Goodrich is a vice president and senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. He’s also the author of “Free to Believe.”
Stephen Voss

Deseret News: Has religious freedom always been a hot-button topic?

Luke Goodrich: There are definitely longstanding debates over religious freedom and misunderstandings. But I think, today, it’s even more controversial because of some of the societal changes that have taken place over the last decade or two.

In recent years, beliefs about absolute truth or that life begins at conception or that marriage is between one man and one woman are increasingly seen as a threat to progress in modern culture. You see lawsuits and government actions designed to punish people for acting on those widely held beliefs.

There are a growing number of religious freedom conflicts and also increasingly polarization around the issue.

DN: In 2020, a lot of those conflicts will play out in the courtroom. What do you expect will happen?

LG: There are many significant cases on the Supreme Court’s doorstep right now.

The justices have already agreed to hear three involving religious schools, and they could also take up cases involving faith-based foster care agencies, small-business owners and workplace protections for people of faith.

That’s an unusually high number of cases. On the whole, I think that’s a good thing.

The Supreme Court has a really important role, almost a teaching role, to play in current debates. By clearing up legal uncertainty and affirming strong religious freedom protections for people of all faiths, the court can reduce the temperature of current conflicts.

DN: 2020 is an election year. How does that affect religious freedom’s future?

LG: I think the stakes are raised in an election year.

But I think most Americans can recognize that, in ongoing debates, it would be bad for the government to pick one side and crush everyone else who disagrees. I think most Americans would rather the government find a way for both sides to live together in peace.

Religious freedom is meant to give people with divergent beliefs the room to live in accordance with their beliefs. I have confidence that American people and institutions will see that respecting religious freedom is a way to let people who disagree on fundamental issues to live together in peace.

DN: But do Americans really agree on what it means to respect religious freedom?

LG: Most folks haven’t really thought deeply about religious freedom because we’ve had it so good in this country for so long.

To the extent that we do think about it, we think about it first and foremost as a legal, political or constitutional issue, and our political leanings affect our assumptions.

Christians who lean conservative tend to think of religious freedom as a tool in culture wars, including battles over abortion or same-sex marriage. It’s sometimes treated as a means of maintaining a privileged or protected place for Christianity in American culture.

Those who lean more progressive politically, on the other hand, tend to downplay the significance of any potential threat to religious freedom, sometimes arguing that a little hardship will do the church some good. They tend to dismiss religious freedom as merely a culture war issue.

DN: People who are liberal and religious also worry religious freedom protections sometimes go too far. They don’t want related laws to excuse anti-LGBTQ discrimination. How do you respond to these concerns?

LG: Progressive folks who are committed to nondiscrimination should understand that LGBTQ individuals and religious individuals are making similar claims.

LGBTQ people are saying their sexuality is a fundamental aspect of who they are and the government shouldn’t punish them for who they are or love. Religious people are saying their religious identity is central to who they are and the government shouldn’t punish them either.

I think progressives sometimes have a blind spot when it comes to religious groups.

DN: Do conservative Christians have blind spots, too?

LG: I’m trying to ask folks who lean conservative to ask themselves why they defend religious freedom and how they go about doing it.

Don’t just defend religious freedom because it’s a useful tool for protecting yourself or in fights over abortion or same-sex marriage. You should defend it as a matter of justice.

I have a chapter in my book entitled “Let Go of Winning.” Basically, I think Christians need to adjust our posture and our attitude in the midst of religious freedom conflicts. We should approach conflict with a posture of joy and hope, not fear or anger.