Keeping church and state separate does not stifle religious freedom

Keeping church and state separate does not stifle religious freedom July 8, 2019

By Ryan D. Jayne
Staff Attorney
Freedom From Religion Foundation

A recent article by a creationist hack for the National Review (the flagship conservative publication) preposterously argues that Canada is stifling religious freedom and that we are headed in the same direction. But Canada is doing just fine, thank you very much, and the U.S. government needs less religion, not more.

Keeping the government free from religion does not stifle religious freedom. Quite the opposite — religious freedom is stifled when the government takes sides on religious issues. The countries that are most hostile to religious liberty are not secular republics, such as Canada or the United States, but rather theocratic countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. A major piece of evidence Discovery Institute’s Wesley J. Smith cites in his piece to show the supposed threat to religion is the secular opposition to the discriminatory Masterpiece Cakeshop baker in Colorado. If Smith thinks requiring a baker to follow nondiscrimination laws is repressive, he should try running a faith-based Christian business in an Islamic theocracy.

The best way to protect religious freedom is to keep the government secular. This includes enforcing laws that give protections regardless of the whims of the majority religion. A law prohibiting female genital mutilation in a Muslim-majority country would not have much effect if it allowed Muslims to opt out of the law for religious reasons, and would be tantamount to the government simply sanctioning the abhorrent religious practice. The same reasoning applies to anti-discrimination laws: When the government prohibits the denial of service based on traits such as race or sexual orientation, there cannot be an exception for Christians who don’t want to follow the law.

Another instance of what the Discovery Institute sees as Canada’s “rancid anti-religiosity” is the policy in Ontario requiring doctors who won’t perform certain procedures for religious reasons to refer patients to another doctor. Actually, this is bending over backward to accommodate the religious doctor, since it adds an extra step for patients just to protect a doctor’s theocratic sensibilities. Portraying such a rule as anti-religious is nonsense.

Advocates of religious freedom only oppose state/church separation when they are comfortably in the majority and trust their government to favor their particular set of religious beliefs. As was said of the Puritans, they love religious liberty so much that they want to keep it all to themselves. Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor made the point exceedingly well when she was on the bench: “At a time when we see around the world the violent consequences of the assumption of religious authority by government, Americans may count themselves fortunate: Our regard for constitutional boundaries has protected us from similar travails, while allowing private religious exercise to flourish … Those who would renegotiate the boundaries between church and state must therefore answer a difficult question: Why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?”

With the current U.S. administration pandering to an ultraconservative evangelical political agenda, it’s time for the United States to take a page from our neighbor to the north.


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Nonreligious
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment