Religious Freedom: What’s All the Fuss About?

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Religious Freedom: What’s All the Fuss About?

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This article is part of a weekly series explaining key cases and religious freedom laws. Visit Religious Freedom: What’s All the Fuss About? to read additional articles, or click subscribe to get weekly updates. 

by Ryan Snow
President Obama at White House Correspondents Association Dinner 2015. Photo is Public Domain.

You’ve probably heard negative things about religious freedom recently.  And you’ve probably also heard the maligning of those who support religious freedom. What is all the fuss about? Is religious freedom really being threatened? Why does it matter? Is there any reason to be concerned about it?

When Indiana residents Kevin and Crystal O’Connor publicly voiced their opinions on a controversial religious freedom state law just a few years ago, another citizen threatened to burn down their pizza shop via social media.[1]  As a result, Kevin and Crystal went into hiding for eight days.[2]  And just weeks after the pizza shop re-opened, then-President Barack Obama made sure to belittle Kevin and Crystal O’Connor at a White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner:

You know what, let me set the record straight.  I tease Joe sometimes, but he has been at my side for seven years now.  I love that man.  (Applause.)  He’s not just a great Vice President, he is a great friend.  We’ve gotten so close, in some places in Indiana, they won’t serve us pizza anymore.  (Laughter and applause.) [3]

These are serious questions to consider. Is religious freedom a pretense for discrimination–a reason to “turn away the gays”? These difficult questions, from the issue of gay rights to other controversial issues such as contraception, must be understood in the broader context of religious freedom.  Religious freedom goes far beyond contemporary controversies.

These blogposts attempt to provide that context by covering many aspects of religious freedom, including cases where religious freedom was violated and the government intervened to provide remedies. Cases dealing with Amish persecution and migration, a pastor who was willing to break the law and go to jail when the government told him not to feed the homeless, and a Sikh woman who was fired for her religious practice, have all resulted in significant legal decisions that are important to the context of religious freedom today.

Other cases important to the context of religious freedom include those where the government has intervened to legitimately override religious practice, such as when Orthodox Jewish Rabbis recently argued that kidnapping was religiously required, and a federal judge (correctly) denied their request to dismiss their criminal charges.[4]

Only recently has religious freedom had the difficult added complexity of becoming a partisan issue that divides conservatives and liberals. In 1990, a former conservative Supreme Court Justice, the late Honorable Antonin Scalia, alarmed people on both sides of the political aisle when he wrote an opinion deviating from prior First Amendment law, and denying unemployment benefits to a Native American man who was fired for religious reasons—ingesting peyote.[5]  Months later liberal then-Senator Joe Biden introduced the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, specifically to overturn the reasoning and result of that Supreme Court opinion.[6]

The politicization of religious freedom has made it difficult to sort out the complexities that have often surrounded issues of religious freedom.  Reading these blogposts should enable you to see past the political rhetoric that clouds religious freedom.  Conservatives, liberals, and those whose political affiliations lie somewhere in between those two ideologies, should all value religious freedom.

Ryan Snow is a graduate of Brigham Young University – Idaho and SMU Dedman School of
Law. He currently practices law in Texas and enjoys spending time with his family.

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[1] See, e.g., Melissa Hudson, High School Coach Suspended After Tweet About Pizzeria, ABC 57 News (Apr. 1, 2015 3:58 PM) (last visited Oct. 22, 2016)
[2] Tom Coyne, Memories Pizza Reopens After Gay Wedding Comments Flap, The Washington Times (Apr. 9, 2015) (last visited Oct. 22, 2016).
[3] Remarks By the President At White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, (Apr. 25, 2015, 10:20 PM), The Whitehouse, (last visited Oct. 22, 2016).[4] United States v. Epstein, 91 F.Supp.3d 573, 583 (D. N.J. 2015) (“The Court has not found any authority condoning the use of violence under the guise of religion, and more importantly, no case has found the Government’s application of violent crime laws to certain religious practices is a substantial burden.”).
[5] See generally Employment Div. v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990).
[6] 103 Cong. Rec. 17330-31 (1990).