Defending Religious Liberty

Religious Liberty: Shield or Sword?

Religious freedom is at the heart of the American ideal. A person’s religion or lack of religion should have no influence on their right to equal treatment under the law. People For the American Way energetically defends the First Amendment to the Constitution, which acts as a shield for religious liberty by preventing the government from coercing people into religious practice or interfering with individuals’ free exercise of religion.

This cherished principle is undermined by those who target some people for discriminatory treatment based on their religious faith and by those who try to turn religious liberty into an excuse for denying equal treatment to others. We resist culture warriors who seek to turn religious liberty from a shield into a sword that individuals and corporations can use to harm others by exempting themselves from laws that promote the common good.

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Religious Liberty and Equality

Religious Right groups wrongly claim that legal equality for LGBTQ Americans is incompatible with religious freedom. Here are a few key principles:

  • Religious freedom and equality under the law are both core constitutional principles.
  • Religious liberty is not absolute, in the same way free speech and other constitutionally protected values are not absolute, and judges and public officials have to make difficult calls when constitutional and civil rights principles come into tension with each other.
  • Having your positions criticized in public discourse is not the same as being subject to persecution; neither is being on a losing end of a legal or policy dispute.

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Religious Freedom for All vs. ‘Christian Nation’

The U.S. Constitution prohibits the establishment of an official religion and forbids the government from requiring that anyone hold particular religious beliefs in order to serve in a public office. The separation of church and state has allowed a vibrant and mostly peaceful religious pluralism to flourish in America.

The authors of the Constitution rejected efforts to include a formal recognition of Christianity. But Religious Right leaders today undermine religious liberty by promoting a false version of American history in which the country was founded by and for Christians, suggesting that non-Christians are somehow less American. Some Religious Right figures even argue that American Muslims are not protected under the First Amendment because Islam is not really a religion. Thomas Jefferson wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which became a model for the First Amendment, and he said it guaranteed religious freedom for “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, the infidel of every denomination.”

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By the Numbers:

1
Religious liberty is often called the USA’s “first freedom” because it is mentioned first in the First Amendment to the Constitution

47
Percentage of Americans who are white Christians

55
Percentage of Americans who support marriage equality for same-sex couples