On the Meaning of Religious Freedom

By on Sep 6, 2015 in Pathways, Posts | 0 comments

Religious freedom is the first freedom guaranteed in the first amendment to the constitution (the other two first amendment rights are freedom of speech and the press). It was so important to the founding fathers they listed it first. Its very essence is that the government cannot in any way foster the establishment of religion. Americans can believe anything they wish as long as they do not harm others and do not use any government office, authority or power to foist beliefs on other people.

We live in a magnificent country with more religious freedom than anywhere on the planet. Our constitution guarantees this. We live in a country that has a constitution that is actually paid attention to which is quite a rarity in our world.

I sympathize with the clerk of Rowen County Kentucky. She has many difficult decision to make. But she and her supporters are flat out wrong in their stance.
There are four reasons why this is true.

First, she is a county clerk an official of the local government. Her salary is paid for with tax payer dollars. If her religious beliefs prevent her from performing her assigned duties she needs to resign. No one requires her to be the county clerk. She appears to love her job. That is wonderful and I am sure the loss is difficult for her. But she cannot use her government position to foist her beliefs on anyone else. To paraphrase Christian scripture “If you work for Caesar you have to follow Caesar’s rules.” She can then render whatever her faith calls her to as a private citizen. Her religious freedom does not include the freedom to use a government office to deny rights to anyone else.

Second, this position is absurd and hypocritical to an amazing degree. Christian Scripture also says you shall not kill. It says this clearly and unequivocally in the form of a commandment.

Does she then refuse to pay taxes because the government can execute people? The totally untenable nature of her position is shown in the following examples:

Imagine: a Muslim working for the FDA inspecting meat plants who refuses to license plants producing pork.

Imagine: an officer in the US Army who converts to Christianity and because of Jesus’ instruction to love your neighbor becomes a pacifist and joins the Quakers. He would have to either resign his position or take a noncombatant role. He would not be permitted to subvert the military in carrying out its duties. He could not refuse to order his troops into combat.

Imagine: a Hindu working for the state government who refused to issue fishing or hunting licenses because of his faith requires vegetarianism.

Imagine: A police officer who converted to Orthodox Judaism and refused to work Saturdays because it was the Sabbath.

Many of us have deeply held beliefs. When we encounter government positions which conflict with those beliefs we have to leave those positions.

Third, the belief that marriage is always between one woman and one man is a viable belief with which I totally disagree but it is viable and in some ways respectable. The desire to demand that the rest of us submit to that belief is not respectable. It is an attempt to enforce religious totalitarianism. This is exactly what ISIS and other extremist sects want to enforce in the Middle East. The stance of this clerk and her supporters would be a step toward the Christian version of “Sharia” law. I personally thank God every day that we have a constitution that protects us from this form of extremism. America is a constitutional democracy not a Theocracy. We are ruled by laws not various religious faiths. This is not an attempt to protect religious liberty, it is an attempt to expand it in dangerous ways. The organizations and people (advisers, clergy and lawyers) around the clerk are using the situation to create a soap opera of false martyrdom in a clear power grab.

Fourth, I see this as part of a much broader attack on the rights of many in our communities. What I see is old fashioned prejudice, hate and discrimination masquerading as religion. The arguments being used in this process are not very different from the arguments used by those fighting civil rights in previous decades. They are simply given a religious veneer. The clerk and her supporters sound and look like George Wallace standing in the school room door many decades ago. Hopefully these people will have the same opportunity to repent as he did in his later years.

Finally, in this I have one other concern. As I have researched this topic I have discovered many conservative religious groups speaking out very clearly and forthrightly. There are hundreds of internet postings. I found only ONE from a progressive Christian. Where is the voice of progressive Christianity? Where is the Church calling for a fuller wider view of this? Why are those leaders so silent? Christians often call on moderate Muslims to speak out and condemn radicals. Where are the Christian moderates? Why are they not speaking out, disassociating themselves from this sham?

All of this is really rather sad and for me and many like me it merely pushes us further from the Christian Church and we wish to have nothing to do with Christianity.


This writing is rather different from my previous thirty-thee posts. It is admittedly more edgy, angry and impatient. I am working at speaking what I see as Truth to the very powerful interests who are involved in this. So I am speaking with clarity and not naively accepting the undercurrents.

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