Case one: a church acts on religious conviction to care for refugees and opens their sanctuary to house and feed those fleeing both the violence back home in Central America and the mission of immigration authorities to deport them from the United States.
Case two: a landowner acts on religious conviction to uphold traditions that limit marriage to a man and a woman and so refuses to rent an apartment to two women who have been married for five years.
Case three: a taxpayer acts on religious conviction to reject war as a means to solve international issues and withholds the percentage of his annual federal tax that corresponds to the percentage of the federal budget that supports the military.
Case four: a school acts on religious conviction to reject all contraception as a means of family planning and refuses to include insurance coverage for contraception for any and all of its employees.
Case five: an employee acts on religious conviction against making, selling, or consuming alcohol and refuses to check out customers who wish to purchase alcohol.
To these five could be added hundreds of examples of how religious convictions can conflict with expectations placed upon citizens, soldiers, employees, judges, and managers. How we as a society sort these things out is a messy affair.
There is a long history of accommodation of religious conviction. A person drafted for service in the military, for instance, can apply for a conscientious objector exemption. A pharmacist can refer a customer to a colleague to fill a problematic prescription.
But sometimes these objections are overruled, as in the case of race. Individuals, schools, and organizations that seek to discriminate against a racial group and claim religious convictions are generally denied such freedom.
Two trends in American life make these issues more contentious.
First, the state has gradually expanded its role in American life, making rules about the workplace, commerce, education, and welfare, to name just a few. The expansion of state and federal regulations about behavior in places public and private has brought to the fore issues of religious freedom. Does a worker have a right to take off from employment on a regular holy day (Friday, Saturday, or Sunday)? Does a worker have a right to wear emblems associated with their religions (hijab or crosses, for instance).
Second, our nation is far more diverse than it has been in the past. Where once there was consensus on many of these things—days off, marriage, capital punishment, etc.—today there is far less; which means juries and judges have been pulled into decision-making tasks about religious freedom. Furthermore: not only is Christianity gradually declining as a social influence, the Christianity that remains is far more diverse than in former years; often Christian groups are on opposite sides of these contentious issues as they wind their way through a legal system.
Because issues of religious freedom have been pulled into the very contentious politics known as the Cultural Wars and weaponized as avenues of political power, it has become very difficult to sustain conversations about these matters.
Our country has been blessed by our tradition of religious freedom. It has undergirded a healthy religious marketplace where religious ideas, institutions, and practices have flourished as they have in few other places around the world. We want to keep it this way even as we struggle with how to guarantee that every person is treated equally and properly, with human dignity, opportunity, and freedom.
Religion is our first freedom: freedom for religious expression and behavior and also freedom from religious expression and behavior. Finding that fine line where my rights end and your rights begin has never been easy and is more difficult now than at any other time. It will take wisdom and patience all around, plenty of courage, and an extra commitment to listening, understanding, and affirming the heart and soul of our neighbor: our secular neighbor, our Christian neighbor, our fundamentalist neighbor, our Muslim neighbor, our Jewish neighbor.
And through it all, let’s hope we can find time to pray and sing together, “God bless America.”