When Religious Freedom Isn’t Freedom

Last week, Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas signed the Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom Act, a bill designed to prohibit the government from interfering with any religious liberties. The Kansas law was drafted in the style of the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court said RFRA could not be applied to the states, but that states could enact similar laws. The Kansas law had been modified from its original form: language that would have allowed discrimination against LGBTQ people was removed.

There seems to be a belief in this country that anything done in the name of “religious freedom” should be untouchable under the law. Should this be the case? Should anyone, anywhere in this country, be allowed to do anything at all in the name of religious freedom?

What about the religious freedoms of the Hopi tribe, which sacrifices endangered golden eagles?

What about the religious freedoms of parents who allow their children to die rather than seek treatment for diseases and conditions like diabetes?

What about companies whose directors have religious objections to birth control, so refuse to provide it in their employees’ health care plans?

At what point does the exercise of religious liberty become too onerous for us to bear?

When the exercise of religious freedom means that someone else will come to harm, or that someone else’s rights and opportunities will be compromised, the religious interests must take a back seat to the exercise of personal freedom by the victim of the religious zealot. We cannot allow one person or group to impose their religious standards on the rest of us, even if it is in the sacred name of their religion.

Not if their religion tells them gay sex is icky. Not if their religion tells them biology is wrong. Not if their religion explains how to enslave someone properly. Not if their religion tells them some people are more equal than others. Not if their religion demands physical mutilation of genitalia. Not if their religion tells them physics is impossible. Not if their religion tells them that a woman’s body is not her own. Not if their religion tells them rape is moral, or murder is okay if they do it in the name of their god. Not if their religion tells them they, and only they, have a right to a certain acre of ground and no one else can be there, no matter how long the other person and his family may have lived there. Not on a boat, not with a goat.

We are free to believe what we believe in this country. No theocrat can control our minds, and no theocrat should be permitted to pass laws proscribing or compelling behavior based on his doctrine and dogma.  American theocrats who insist on passing laws to support their own religious beliefs, regardless of whether there are good, non-religious reasons for those laws, is no better than the Taliban or any other dictator. They should not be permitted in office.

The thing about laws is that they should proscribe the least restrictive standards society will tolerate, not the most restrictions, and not even ideal restrictions. For real religious freedom, laws should allow people to act on their own consciences unless and until their behavior impacts another person. Laws should not restrict how we govern ourselves in our personal lives, but the minimum acceptable standard of behavior toward other people. That means no stealing, no cheating, and no wanton killing. That doesn’t mean regulating how we have sex and with whom, what we may do with our own bodies, who we are allowed to love, or who our families are allowed to be. It means teaching public school children only nonreligious ideals. It means teaching science in science class, not teaching the Bronze Age mythology of one particular Middle Eastern tribe in science class. It means no state-sanctioned, preferential treatment of religion, ever. It means not abdicating responsibility to a community as a whole by claiming your religion lets you opt out.

When someone claims a violation of religious freedom, but is complaining only about what other people are allowed to do that he doesn’t like, his religious freedom is not being violated. The truth is, he wants to violate someone else’s freedom, to compel them to the ideal behavior he aspires to.

And when homophobic conservative lawmakers tap their toes for gay sex in airport bathrooms after voting to discriminate against gay people, they are not only hypocrites, they expect a society built on the notion of equality to accept that there should be double standards. There should never, ever be double standards.

No matter what they claim, those theocrats do not believe in religious freedom at all. Instead, they use the phrase “religious freedom” in order to persecute and suppress religions they don’t like or do not understand. That isn’t freedom.

That’s the Inquisition, by another name.


Got a legal question? Email me at anne@aramink.com. I’m a lawyer, but there’s only a 2% chance I’m licensed in your state. Whether I answer your question or not, sending me an email or reading this blog post does not create an attorney-client relationship between us. I’m on Twitter as @aramink, and you can see my regular blog at www.aramink.com, where I write book reviews, ruminate on Life, the Universe, and Everything, and occasionally – frequently – rant about Stuff.

About Anne

Civil rights activist Anne Orsi is one of the spokespeople for the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers and is the primary organizer of Reason in the Rock, a conference on science, secularism and skepticism. Got a question? Email her at anne@aramink.com. She's a lawyer but may not be licensed in your state. Sending her an email or reading her blog posts does not create an attorney-client relationship. Find Anne on Twitter as @aramink, and read her regular blog at www.aramink.com.

  • Jeff

    I had a frustrating conversation with my roommate last week; he was so married to the idea of 100% full religious privilege that he said he would oppose Child Protective Services from removing children from the home of neglectful, constantly-partying drug addicts if they were to claim that they worship Bacchus and are simply following their faith.

  • Gareth

    Interesting (and useful) quote at the end of the Golden Eagle article:

    “…while [the] Constitution guarantees complete freedom of religious belief, it does not guarantee complete freedom of religious practice. We do not, for example, permit the sacrifice by fire of live goats.”

    Something that should be said more often, IMO.

  • David Hart

    My distillation is: if you’re demanding the religious freedom to do something that you wouldn’t be allowed to do if you were doing it for entirely non-religious reasons, you are in fact demanding privilege, not freedom.

    Also, Jeff, did you try your roommate out on Sam Harris’s hypothetical culture that removes the eyeballs of one in three of its newborn babies because they have a religious scripture that that think requires them to do so? Or even just the plain old unnecessary-open-heart-surgery of the Aztec cult of Huitzilopochtli?

    • Jeff

      Yes and yes, as well as the real-life example of female “circumcision”. Like I said, he loves the idea of 100% freedom of religious practice, even when such practice results in negative and irreversible consequences for someone other than the practitioner.

      • Glodson

        Then he should be totally on board for some human sacrifice.

        I don’t understand this point of view. It is stupid beyond words.

      • Nate Frein

        Ugh. What about the child’s right to be free from that religion?

        Jeezum crowe. What if my religion involves picking a man at random and murduring him? And I just happen to pick your roommate? Does he still support my 100% freedom of religious practice?

      • David Hart

        Well, at least he appears to the virtue of consistency, I suppose. I wonder though, assuming he really is cool with real-and-current clitoridectomy, real-but-historical cardiectomy and hypothetical ophthalmectomy surgery done for religious reasons, would he also be cool if someone did any of these things based on deeply-held non-religious beliefs … more generally, does he hold that the mere fact that someone sincerely believes that an action is justifiable makes it so, or does he only take that position when the belief involves the supernatural and if so, why the double standard? I’d be interested to know his response.

      • ah58

        What if your religion demanded the ritual sacrifice of roommates? Would he happily hop up on the pyre?

      • baal

        Did you demand to stab a steak knife through his cock? I think one of the central american gods went for that. Just say it’s a part of your religion.

        • Andrew Kohler

          I wasn’t aware of that particular genital mutilation ritual, but it is hardly surprising given how many cultures like to take knives to the private parts of children (both boys and girls, to say nothing about the surgeries inflicted on intersex children). And, speaking of cutting children’s genitals, how about babies contracting herpes from having part of their penises cut off and then having the wound sucked on by a grown man?


          This article is far too generous in tone for my liking, but the last paragraph is actually quite insightful.

          By the way, the practitioners of this obscene practice were up in arms when the New York Board of Health required that parents sign a permission slip before subjecting their children to it, saying they understood the risks. Someone city official said this milquetoast measure was about making informed decisions, which would almost be comical if it weren’t so hideous—if the babies had had any say in the matter, perhaps they would be alive today.

      • http://smingleigh.wordpress.com Zinc Avenger (Sarcasm Tags 3.0 Compliant)

        Time to enforce the Abominations of Nuggan. That link should get you started.

        Add a new Abomination every day.

      • Andrew Kohler

        Female genital mutilation was not made illegal in the United States until the late 1990s. There was a time when it was practiced in this country, by white Christians, albeit never as ubiquitously as male circumcision. Some Victorian Era doctors said that a clitoris was a terrible liability, and suggested that it be removed as a cure for insanity. See Hanny Lightfoot-Klein’s Children’s Genitals Under the Knife and Patricia Robinett’s The Rape of Innocence. The latter author was subjected to clitoridectomy as a child in America. Also take a look at what John Harvey Kellogg and P. C. Remondino, two Victorian Era whack jobs, had to say about genital cutting or similar practices as a prevention or cure for masturbation, mostly for little boys but in some cases also for little girls (or adults).

        I’d rather not ask Sam Brownback if he supports the federal ban on FGM; I’m too afraid he’d say he doesn’t.

        “Hide your face and weep if you dare to harm a child.” –Christopher Hitchens (one of his own, improved 10 Commandments)

    • John Morgan

      I think David Hart hit the nail on the head (ouch!):

      Nobody should be allowed to do anything as a part of a religion that they would NOT be allowed to do if it was not a part of a religion. Nobody should be prevented from doing something as a part of a religion that they would be allowed to do if it was not part of a religion.

      That is: religious freedom is irrelevant. The only real issue is personal freedom.

      People should be prevented from doing things that harm other people, but otherwise should be able to do what they like. Lest I be accused of being a radical libertarian/anarchist, I would hasten to say that I do believe that democratically-elected governments should be able to collect reasonable amounts of taxes to perform important government functions, subject to democratically decided modification and possible discontinuation of some of those functions. I also believe in regulatory laws that keep society functioning smoothly, like traffic laws, anti-pollution laws, fair labor practice laws, consumer protection laws, etc., but I also think these should be subject to close scrutiny to make sure they actually have the desired effects.

      Religion should not have ANY special protections under the law that are not extended to non-religious human activities.

  • iknklast

    When religious freedom infringes on the freedom of another individual, it is not acceptable. When religious freedom infringes on my right to personal autonomy, it is not religious freedom, it is tyranny. When religious freedom means that a parent can home school a child in such a way that they don’t learn anything about life, especially the icky bits, then it is not freedom, it is tyranny. The child should have rights, too, and they should also have their religious freedom.

    Religious freedom, in other words, should be totally limited to the person exercising it. They may exercise it in public, but that doesn’t mean they get to make everyone else do it. When you expand your religious freedom to the point that it denies rights to someone else, it has stepped beyond the bounds of what is acceptable. Then it is not freedom at all.

    • Andrew Kohler

      This is very excellently stated, especially the last two sentences. I think I will have to use them in the future (with proper attribution, of course) :-)

  • baal

    I’m probably overly fond on simple rules but I like the notion that your right to swing your fist ends somewhere close to my nose. Looking at the impact or consequence of an action (or legal rule change) is a really easy and effective way of taking at least a first pass at policy. Pretty much each of the examples above has someone other than the religionist suffering for the decision of that religionist. You can swing your fist (raise your kid) until you get close to hitting its nose (not treating its diabetes).

  • John Horstman

    Hear hear!

  • Derrik Pates

    Specifically regarding this idea of businesses not wanting health plans to cover birth control – why hasn’t anyone pointed out health insurance is a benefit of employment, like a paycheck? My employer doesn’t get any say in how I spend my paycheck. Why should they get a say in what my insurance does or doesn’t pay for? That would be like my employer deciding they don’t like my diet, so them unilaterally deciding what food I can and can’t buy with my pay. Their personal opinions about their employees’ lives shouldn’t be enforced upon their employees, no matter how right they think they are. Where does it end? I hate to use the phrase “slippery slope”, but if ever there was one, I’d say this qualifies.

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  • jimmyt

    and if you get upset about it, he will call your teachers