“Religious freedom” is not a get out of jail free card

There’s something that’s been bothering me for a while now, especially with the Hosanna-Tabor Supreme Court decision last month and the Catholic Bishops’  push back against the Obama Administration’s regulation requiring that every insurance plan offer birth control without co-pays. It’s this: religious individuals seem to think “religious freedom” is a get out of jail free card.

Religious freedom means you are free to believe as you like. It does not, however, mean that you are free to do as you like. Here are some examples:

You are free to believe that infant sacrifice is the only thing that will appease the anger of the gods, but you are not free to sacrifice infants.

You are free to believe that God has ordained that the races must remain separate, but you are not free to refuse to serve interracial couples at your restaurant.

You are free to believe that fornicators and adulterers should be put to death, but you are not free to stone them.

You are free to believe that abortion doctors murder babies, but you are not free to assassinate abortion doctors or blow up abortion clinics.

And so on. The point is that while you are free to believe what you like, you are not free to do what you like if that action will harm others or violate the rights of others. If the government requires that all businesses offer their employees health care plans, and that all health care plans include birth control, you can’t simply opt out. Well, apparently you can, but you shouldn’t be able to. Similarly, if the government requires that people not discriminate on the base of race or sex, you are not allowed to refuse to serve interracial couples at your restaurant regardless of what you think of interracial marriage. Similarly, you are not allowed to refuse to serve an atheist in your flower store because you oppose atheism. In a civil society, there have to be rules. You can’t claim the rules don’t apply to you just because you believe X, Y, or Z.

Believe what you like, but don’t use your beliefs to justify violating the rights of others and then think “religious freedom” is some sort of get out of jail free card. It isn’t.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Ace of Sevens

    And we already had this legal battle a long time ago about polygamy, drugs and any number of other things. Some people won’t accept it.

    • Libby Anne

      Polygamy – Good point! Same with things like honor killings and female genital mutilation.

      • MamaVanilla

        Include Male Genital Mutilation, otherwise known as circumcision, and we’re good. ‘Religious freedom’ ends where another person’s body begins.

  • Steve

    I don’t get that either. Somewhere in the last decade or two, the US has taken a turn towards bizarro land in its understanding of religious freedom

    • Jeff Sherry

      The bizarro has always been on the fringe, the difference is that the bizarro was courted by the Republicans and has taken over the party.

    • Nancy New, Queen of your Regulatory Nightmare

      Robert Heinlein predicted it. We’re in the middle of the Crazy Years. What worries me most is what ended the Crazy Years–it seems all too possible in the current socio-political climate.

  • Scott Mcmeekin


    Someone should read this out at a joint session of Congress. Word for word. Do em (and the rest of us, mind) a lot of good.

    Nice post.



  • Makoto

    So true, and yet, so many politicians (especially the current crop of GOP candidates) seem to argue for basically the opposite, and it worries me. And yet these are the same group trying to scare people about sharia law…

    • amavra

      I just made the connection to Sharia Law too. Organizations don’t have religious control over individuals, even if they do belong to that organizations. The government should not be any part of helping a religious group keep its members in line with doctrine.

  • kisekileia

    Agreed, and I’m speaking as a Christian here. Religious freedom should not extend to hurting others in the name of religion, whether they are employees of religious groups, children with parents who are religiously opposed to medical care, or anyone else. The less people are allowed to hurt others in the name of religion, the less religious groups will earn the hatred and contempt of people with sound consciences.

  • Taz

    It’s a rear-guard action. What the right wing can no longer claim on the grounds of common belief they now claim on the grounds of specific religious belief.

  • Syl

    What this really comes down to is money. The objection of the Catholic church and some other religious types isn’t (for sake of argument) that they want to prevent employees of their non-church institutions from using birth control, but they don’t want to be required to finance something they find morally objectionable. Leaving out ulterior motives and control issues, it’s about whether or not an employer or organization or individual should be required by the government to fund something – or someone else’s ability to do something – that they believe is wrong (for whatever reason).

    Well, I have news for them – they do it all the time, and so do we all.

    Someone whose religion forbids them from participating in combat is not forced to go to war – they can be classified as a conscientious objector and be exempt from military service. However, they are not exempt from paying taxes that are used to fund the war they object to. You may object to dozens of things the government finances with the taxes you pay, and you may have legitimate moral reasons for doing so – but you still have to pay up and don’t get to say “don’t use any of my money for XYZ”.

    The segregation analogy is appropriate too. A private club can restrict its membership to whatever criteria it chooses. But a business that’s open to the general public can’t discriminate. If the purpose of the organization in question is to propagate its doctrine and its employees must be “members of the club” that are expected to adhere to its rules, then not providing and paying for the ability to “step out of line” is not unreasonable. But when the club decides to operate an organization that offers non-club services to the public at large, regardless of affiliation, and its employees are not required to be members of the club, it’s a different game.

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      “You may object to dozens of things the government finances with the taxes you pay, and you may have legitimate moral reasons for doing so – but you still have to pay up and don’t get to say “don’t use any of my money for XYZ”.”

      This is such a good point and it was one that was on my mind a great deal during the healthcare fiasco with all the hullaballoo about taxpayer dollars going to fund abortion.

      I marched on Washington against the Iraq war, but my tax money still went to fund it. And I accept that. That’s because, by living in this society, I have agreed to the social contract we have made, in which we all contribute and then elect politicians to best allocate those resources in the way see fit. It’s not a perfect system (especially with the sorry state of voting post-Citizens United) but the answer is not just to pull funding for everything anyone anywhere objects to. We’d have chaos. If the anti-abortionists don’t want a penny of theirs used on abortion services, they can go find a nice dictatorship with a despot who echoes all their views. They’d better be careful not to ever cross him/her though, since they won’t have civil rights.

      It’s not a “get out of jail free card” some religious people want so much as a “get out of the social contract free” card.

  • machintelligence

    Taz @6
    It’s more like a last gasp. The fundamentalist beliefs can only be retained by enforced ignorance of the young. This is why the internet (and in some cases, even TV) are forbidden. It also explains the anti-intellectual and anti higher education stance of the right wing. They are faced with an aging and declining population of believers. We have them on the run, but we must not get caught in their death throes.

  • wscott

    Religious freedom means you are free to believe as you like. It does not, however, mean that you are free to do as you like.

    Well phrased, and I agree with you in principle. But in practice, it’s a little more complicated than that. The Constitution doesn’t protect religious belief, it expressly protects religious practice. Obviously there are exceptions for the common good, but the burden is clearly on the government to prove the need for such exceptions.
    Tho what health care insurance has to do with practicing one’s religion is beyond me.

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  • Andrew Miller

    I would disagree with ONE small point. Specifically, if someone wants to refuse the business of a customer they find morally objectionable for whatever reason. There is the phrase “we reserve the right to refuse service to anybody.”

    What that means is that if someone wants to refuse to sell flowers to an interracial couple, they are perfectly free to pass up their business and let the more tolerant florist down the street rake in the cash. That’s why the deep South used to have “Jim Crow” laws. Because otherwise the racists would have all gone out of business. They had to codify their bigotry into law just to stop more enlightened and practical minded business owners from having an “unfair” advantage.

    That’s the funny thing about extremists. If you simply stop them from forcing their views on others, they pretty much fall by the wayside. Bottom line: evil is illogical and stupid. It’s counterproductive and contrasurvival. It is… bad for business.