Commentary | Let Common Sense Prevail In Battle Over Religious Liberty

As Presidential Candidates shout about religious freedom, it’s time for some perspective

George Diaz holds a bilingual Bible as he attends services in Louisville, Ky. Services at the chapel are delivered in both English and Spanish. (Photo: Ed Reinke |AP)

The very day in late February that five Republican candidates for president participated in a smash-mouth debate in Texas with much moaning and gnashing of teeth about the erosion of religious freedom in the United States, these things also happened:

  • I gathered with Episcopalians, Catholics, and mainline Protestants for a Bible study I help to lead in Downtown Kansas City. And no one tried to stop us or curb our discussion.
  • Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, one of the five GOP debaters that evening, responded wisely in a radio interview about how best to respond to extreme approaches to religious liberty in America, saying: “If you’re in the business of selling things, if you’re not going to sell to somebody you don’t agree (with), OK, today I’m not going to sell to somebody who’s gay, and tomorrow maybe I won’t sell to somebody who’s divorced. If you’re in the business of commerce, conduct commerce.” And, he added, as that anathema person leaves your business with your products, say a silent prayer for him or her.
  • In Minya, Egypt, near Cairo, a court sentenced five Coptic Christian teenagers to prison for insulting — yes, just insulting — Islam. This is the same Minya where, in 2013, mobs of young men attacked Coptic Christian families, businesses, and churches.

It’s way past time for a little perspective about the religious freedom debate in the United States.

Although there will always be instances of legitimate disagreements about the boundaries of religious freedom guaranteed to Americans by the Constitution, the reality is that the United States is one of the most religiously free nations on Earth, despite those citizens — mostly Christian — who confuse religious freedom with political ideology.

It’s way past time for a little perspective about the religious freedom debate in the United States.

Back when Bill Clinton was president in 1993, various court cases —  having to do with such matters as Native Americans smoking peyote in sacred ceremonies and with eminent domain cases involving church property — came to the public’s attention and revealed the need for some additional protections for religious liberty.

The result was the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which appeared to be a common-sense approach to rebalance freedom and government power a bit. It passed both houses of Congress almost unanimously.

In 1997, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional, saying it exceeded the enforcement power of Congress. Since then more than 20 states have passed similar laws, though some of them have been obvious ploys to protect bigoted business owners who didn’t want to conduct commerce with gay people — like bakers and florists, asked to provide products for gay weddings. (Indiana’s original 2015 law about all of this is an example, as is proposed legislation in Missouri.)

The religious freedom fight also has seen Catholic authorities and others object to parts of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. And that battle at times has been intense and uncivil.

What many Americans miss in this controversy is that religious liberty flourishes in the United States compared with much of the world. All one needs to do is to read the annual reports of the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Read them and weep.

They describe horrific religious repression in dozens of countries — repression often aimed at Christians. The 2015 USCIRF report focuses especially on the so-called Islamic State, often called ISIS, but referred to in this report as ISIL:

“A horrified world has watched the results of what some have aptly called violence masquerading as religious devotion. In both Iraq and Syria, no religious group has been free of ISIL’s depredations in areas it has conquered.

“ISIL has unleashed waves of terror upon Yazidis and Christians, Shi’a and Sunnis, as well as others who have dared to oppose its extremist views. When ISIL last June overtook Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, it immediately murdered 12 dissenting Sunni clerics, kidnapped Christian priests and nuns, and leveled ancient houses of worship.

“The recent discovery of mass graves underscores the extent of the atrocities ISIL has perpetrated on foes of its reign. More than half a million Mosul residents have fled their homes. When ISIL seized Sinjar, the Yazidis’ ancestral homeland, 200,000 were forced to flee. In Syria, ISIL’s horrors are replicated by those of other religious extremist groups and the Assad government. Yazidis and Christians have borne the worst brunt of the persecution by ISIL and other violent religious extremists.”

“What many Americans miss in this controversy is that religious liberty flourishes in the United States compared with much of the world.”

And this says nothing about religious suppression in Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Pakistan, and many other countries.

But instead of recognizing the generally wide limits to our American religious freedom, we have become a fearful nation, literally arming ourselves against essentially non-existent threats and crying “Wolf!” at the slightest hint that someone has a different view of religion than we do. It’s a doleful state of affairs, unlikely to improve as long as we tolerate leaders who use “Christian” as a political — not a religious — identity. And they are legion.

Bill Tammeus is a Presbyterian elder and columnist who writes the daily “Faith Matters” blog for the Kansas City Star’s website and other publications. His latest book is “Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk Into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church.” E-mail him at

This story is part of the KCPT and Hale Center for Journalism project “Beyond Belief,” a series of stories and discussions about faith and the different faith traditions in our diverse city. The project is part of Localore: Finding America, created by AIR, a Boston-based network of independent public media producers. Principle funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Learn more about “Beyond Belief” here.

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