Not Your (Founding) Fathers’ Definition of “Religious Liberty”

Sunday Sermon time….

It’s not just the fight over RFRA.

Increasingly, defenders of “religious liberty” are insisting that what their liberty requires is the right to dictate the behaviors and prescribe the rights of others. Any effort to remind these theocrats that non-Christians and nonbelievers are entitled to equal treatment by government is met with outrage and accusations of “political correctness” and “waging war on faith.”

Think I’m exaggerating? These three examples all crossed my desk on a single day:

In Michigan, a Catholic hospital repeatedly refused to perform a medically-necessary tubal ligation, despite the doctor’s strong recommendation.

Weeks after learning she would give birth to her third child, Jessica Mann was faced with a difficult decision: because she was stricken by a life-threatening brain tumor, her doctor recommended she have her fallopian tubes tied at the time of her scheduled cesarean section delivery, later this month….

Mann’s doctor advised her that tubal ligation during the C-section it would be the safest route, consistent with long-established standard of care, and prevent the need for another surgery.

The hospital cited its Catholic affiliation–and its liberty to follow the teachings of  the Church, even if that meant it was sufficiently in conflict with the medical “standard of care” as to be considered malpractice– as justification for the denial.

In Tennessee, self-identified “Sovereign Citizens” are refusing to buy license plates or to register their automobiles. From the Marty Center at the University of Chicago, we learn that

While the sovereign citizen movement is often represented as a collection of scofflaws creating elaborate interpretations of the American legal system in order to scam it, the reality is more complex…

The majority of sovereign citizens conceive of and engage in their claims and practices as religious.

These sovereign citizens claim–and fervently believe–that the law as they espouse it always supersedes other interpretations of the law. Their “liberty” to follow the “real” law is thus more important than the government’s interpretation of the law.

But this is my favorite: In Washington, D.C., a church is actually claiming that the location of a proposed bike lane adjacent to its property would “infringe on its constitutional right to religious freedom.” (You really can’t make this shit up.) As a post at Think Progress pointed out:

Currently, D.C. provides the church with a benefit that is paid for by taxpayers: a road near the church which does not include a bike lane. D.C. proposed offering the church a different benefit which would also be paid for by the city’s taxpayers: a road near the church which does include a bike lane. The church, in effect, is claiming that it has the right to dictate which taxpayer-funded benefits the District of Columbia shall provide, solely because it happens to be a religious organization.

These assertions of “religious liberty” would have baffled the men who drafted America’s Constitution. They are certainly inconsistent with the libertarian construct that emerged from the Enlightenment and influenced America’s founders: the notion that each individual has a right to make his or her own moral choices–follow his own telos–so long as he does not thereby harm the person or property of a non-consenting other and so long as he is willing to accord an equal right to others.

To put the philosophy of the Bill of Rights into modern terminology, it’s pretty much “live and let live.” (Again, so long as you aren’t harming anyone else–and “harming” is admittedly a contestable definition.)

That philosophy definitely isn’t “I get to do what I want, and since I have a direct line to God and Truth, I also get to make you behave the way my religion thinks you should.”

We are each entitled to liberty, not privilege.


  1. Selfishness is always trying to disguise itself as something else. Now, it’s using religion. It used to be for ‘economic’ purposes (can you say ‘trickle down’?).

  2. Atheist news aggregators–the Friendly Atheist is a good one– report on an astonishing number of abuses like this every day. In the past, ministers and religious organizations were the biggest defenders of the separation of church and state. That was before the Dominionists became so powerful. Religious moderates and liberals have been way too slow to push back against these abuses because of their respect for religious freedom and diversity. Religion is so privileged in our society that we aren’t supposed to suvject even the most toxic beliefs to any kind of scrutiny or criticism.

  3. I am so sick of church people. Please make them shut up and sit down. Please. And lets tax the daylights out of them too. They should pay the same property tax and all other taxes as the rest of us.

  4. If there is anything that has been proven beyond the shadow of a doubt it is that theocracy is anti- freedom and plain doesn’t work. It’s lousy government except for religious leaders. We know that yet evangelicals insist that they have the right to impose it on us. God tells them so. The founders told them so. Only the Constitution prevents it. Our Constitution.

  5. During the past decade as more and more people have become open about their doubts about religious beliefs, publicly admitting to atheism, leaving organized religion in droves, those still adhering to religion feel threatened. Once doubts, skepticism, or rejection of religion was kept in the closet. Not so any more. It isn’t enough for those who still believe to simply accept this new openness. For the more fundamentalist it has become such a threat that they feel compelled to call out the doubters as the “enemy”. It is much more interesting to see every question as an “attack”. To separate the population into “us and them”. Pretty much like politics these days. And just about as pointless.

  6. Religious freedom also means freedom FROM religion not of our choosing…or no religion is that is our option. This country began by those who came here to escape forced religious beliefs and dogma. They fought their way through the Salem witch trials for a period of time before finding their way. We have come a long way from those days but are now forced to move back in time…back centuries to enforced religious beliefs of those in power who make laws backed by their version of religious beliefs to deny our civil and human rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as we see it.

  7. The strongest reason we were told to fight Communism was because they were those “Godless Commies”. Give a dog a bad name and then kill it.

    There is little doubt that Lenin purged the church during his reign. Now we see why. Freedom and Religion don’t mix and never will. In so long as people look to the skies for solution of their problems, problems will exist, and increase. For nature won’t allow stagnation.

    We need to tax churches out of existence. Right after we do that to Walmart.

  8. The very essence of religion is to subjugate. All branches demand that one prostrate themselves before ‘the most high’ On your knees before Allah. History is rife with the conclusions between church and state. Back to the 12th century and the Europeans striking out in what they called religious wars: The Crusades.

    Europeans glory in this concept. There is none greater than the mythical Richard who went forth to tame the heathens. If you didn’t buy into the dream that you could donate your life and limb today in order to insure your ‘wings on high’ tomorrow, there is something wrong with you.

    Look up there. What do you see? That’s what’s there! Hear Jesus, not Paul. Love one another and heaven is found!

    Nothing is changed. The strategy remains the same: First the Bible, then the gun.

  9. I am a church member but have long thought that when you do not charge churches a property tax and allow donations to its efforts to be deductible from income that you are confounding the church-state negation by forcing all taxpayers to share in the church’s expenses. This also has application to how some “think tanks” are organized to allow deductions to its contributors. I, for instance, object to contributing (albeit indirectly) to the efforts of the Heritage Foundation, a right wing Republican/Libertarian outfit dedicated to pillage of our treasury.

  10. Both sides in this religious vs. nonreligious debate can easily point out the defects in their opposing side. In fact, that is part of the problem. The defects of the “other” is all there seems to be. How about making an effort to point out the positives of each side. The positives at this time in history. Leave taxes out of it for now. That is a whole other topic.
    Let me begin. Most of those who still practice a religion are good, kind, law abiding people.
    Most of those who do not practice a religion are more prone to rational thinking.
    Is there anyone else who is willing to add to this?

  11. Thank you, Theresa. I agree. People have all. kinds of reasons for doing what we/they do. Live at peace.

  12. Ken!!! Ken!!! Ken!!!

    This is my response to your post on yesterday’s blog, which I did not have time to read until today.

    First, I will address your rudeness – when you type someone’s name and follow it with an exclamation point you are being extremely aggressive and rude. I hope you realize that it is the same as pointing your finger in someone’s face. Did your parents fail to teach you any manners? I hope by reading your name followed by exclamation points will give you a sense of your aggressive behavior on this blog.

    Second, I read and did respond to the first site that you posted. I do not spend all day and evening checking this blog to find more posts, so if you posted something else expecting a response from me – get over it! Do NOT accuse me of not being able to engage in conversation!

  13. I had read an article a few days before about the Michigan Catholic Hospital you mention above. A few words I was born and raised a Roman Catholic, but at a point I simply stopped believing in Institutional Religion.

    The Judaeo-Christian is chocked full of stories, Genesis Creation, Adam and Eve, Exodus, Noah’s Ark, etc., that defy Logic. Some have tried through twisted circular thinking that we have a God of the Old Testament vs the God of the New Testament. Then we have another group that says we should read some parts figuratively vs literally, these understandings depend upon your point of view. Toss this out keep this in is determined by a human or humans who make those decisions and rules.

    The Roman Catholic Church certainly has not cornered the market on morality. We know for decades the Hierarchy of the church, knew about the sexual abuse and not only was silent on it but covered it up.

    This whole idea that if you are engaged in business as hospital, cook, baker, or candle sticker maker you have a right to choose who you will serve and who you will not is bogus.

  14. Radical right-wing religious groups are one of numerous opiates used by the plutocrats and their minions- Republican politicians to blind the poor and middle class to their best interest. Mix radical religion with the love of guns, perpetual partying, fear of losing jobs or job opportunities, right-wing media and a culture of narcissism and the rich create a thick fog of “false consciousness” to cover the theft of wealth and political power.

    Lynn Richard Nelson

  15. Earl; taxing churches out of existence would deny Americans their religious freedom. A no-no in this day and age when state laws and Congress and SCOTUS are backing the removal of too many of our rights…in the name (overtly or covertly) of religion.

    Jerry; not taxing churches has always consisted of “…forcing all tax payers to share in the church’s expenses.” There is also the situation in religious based schools, which are partially supported by tax payers; the parents who choose to send their children to religious schools pay tuition and are also paying property taxes which supports public education…a double whammy. Made worse here by the rising number of Voucher students.

    Theresa; I must take issue with your belief that “Most of those who still practice a religion are good, kind, law-abiding citizens.” What religion is Hobby Lobby, et al, who managed to get a law passed denying their female employees access to birth control but bypassing the male counterpart’s medical coverage? They are NOW law-abiding after getting the bill passed through Congress to become the law of their religion and their enterprise. We already know Kim Davis’s religious affiliation and her continuing refusal to obey the laws of Kentucky and federal laws. What religion is the GOP whose determination to deny tax dollars to Planned Parenthood which, in turn, denies vital medical care to men and women? And I consider myself to be a rational thinking adult; wrong at times.

    I stand by my personal beliefs; a conglomeration of Christian, Jews for Jesus, Atheism and a few beliefs that probably cannot be found in any organized religion. I allow all others their freedom to believe as they wish when most of their religious foundations would deny my beliefs as being religious in nature. Maybe spiritual would be a better description; I pray daily, some days more often than others. Religion is a belief; Atheism is a belief but is mistakenly believed to be anti-religion.

    “But this is my favorite: In Washington, D.C., a church is actually claiming that the location of a proposed bike lane adjacent to its property would “infringe on its constitutional right to religious freedom.” (You really can’t make this shit up.)”

    I am with Sheila when it comes to a favorite religious right in this blog; exactly which “right to religious freedom” is being infringed upon by that proposed? Their right to their personal road in front of their location – but which religious right covers road ownership? Or do they have an anti-bicycle chapter and verse in their Bible?

  16. Contrary to your apparent assertion, the Constitution has never included a “Freedom From Religion” provision. That’s simply revisionist history.

  17. Paul K. Ogden; you, with the usual Republican lack of insight and/or understanding of the Constitution or it’s Amendments cannot see the meaning of, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;…”

    Nowhere does it order us to have a religion, “prohibiting the free exercise thereof” means what it says, the decision regarding religion, yea or nay, is up to each of us.

  18. One of the reasons churches spread in efforts to get special treatment is that they are being attact. While such has happened in the past it’s not today. To be denied undue privilege is not being threatened.

  19. Has anyone else ever wondered why the very first issue in the 1st Amendment addressed by the founding fathers is religion; keeping government out of religion and allowing citizens to the freedom to choose?

  20. I’m not sure that It’s in our best interest to tax all churches because many serve a real need and are financially struggling. That having been said though, there are many churches that are way more business than church. Their “excess” income needs to be defined and taxed.

  21. Pete,

    the taxes incurred would fund social programs a thousand times over. Just do the math.

    (I know the money would probably go to the DOD!)

  22. Interesting discussion, as always…

    I believe rhe Puritans came here for the freedom to practice THEIR religion. Were you not a Puritan, but, for instance, a Quaker, you were liable to be hung, or deported from the colony. Apparently as more groups and sects arrived and settled communities expanded, the idea that freedom to practice religion should be broader, and tolerance should come into play began to become a more common approach. Apparently the Puritans, in their New England enclaves, did not leap happily to these newer ideas (nor, as you all have been noting, have they yet).

    As we work through this current period of intolerance and fear and hatred for “the other,” it helps me (at least) to contemplate the long, long history of these ideas and arguments – kind of an ironic cold comfort.

    A word of happy news – Canadians voted in their highest numbers since 1993 for a strong move away from intolerance, divisiveness and fear. 58% plus voted left of centre – in favour of caring. A very hopeful time. Now comes the long haul of building.

  23. Sorry, I was too vague – that is caring: for their neighbors, their environment, and the larger world.

Comments are closed.