What Does Religious Freedom Look Like?


By Mick Spillane


What do we mean when we talk about religious freedom? Who or what gets to define religious freedom? When should religious freedom surrender to other values? As society becomes more religiously diverse, it is becoming harder to define.


There is no “how-to” manual for this issue. No vibrant democracy has ever had our level of religious pluralism and piety. We are on our own to figure this one out.


Religious conservatives have been perturbed these days. And, Catholic bishops have focused on the Obama administration’s new health care law and its mandate that insurance companies provide contraceptives to subscribers at no cost. Conversely, if the Catholic Church would like a voice in these matters, perhaps they need to start paying taxes, not be tax exempt. In this era of bigger government, religious groups argue that they need to be part of social services, which are being provided by the government. So, a Christian group gets to hang a cross in a battered-women’s shelter?


The Judeo-Christian tradition is crumbling: for centuries, sex, reproduction, gender, and marriage were treated as the norm. Now, not just in secular society, but in religious communities it is deteriorating, as well.


We may soon be faced with a society where religious conservatives are restless to increase the power of religious organizations in the United States, even if that means eroding basic principles of religious freedom. Instead of treating religious freedom as a category of time-honored liberty and of freedom of conscience, they want religious freedom to become a separate type of liberty, deserving of special treatment and privileges unavailable to people under any other circumstances. The “religious right” wants to anoint religious privilege as a basic civil right.


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