Religious Freedom has been twisted from a constitutional right to subversive discrimination.
You will hear the word religious freedom constantly by the Trump Administration. They have dedicated a national holiday for it, created guidelines for protecting it in the Justice Department, and have taken many opportunities to explicitly say religious freedom is a key inalienable right of American citizens.
That is just not the case.
Religious freedom has been warped to become a way to hide discrimination and promote a very particular brand of Christianity. Whether it is to deny services to the LGBT, attack Muslims, or deny women full health care from employers, religious freedom has been tainted by an administration that seems to be more focused on appeasing their base then truly following the essence of what the constitutional Right of Religious Freedom is.
The first major reason why religious freedom is not an a priori right is that it is not absolute compared to other forms of identification. You cannot change your race, sex, sexual orientation, or nation of origin. You are, however, able to change your religion. Religion is a matter of choice. In fact, this is celebrated in religious communities. Those that convert to a religion are praised. And choice is also used by religious communities as not deserving the highest standard of protection.
An argument made against abortion is that it is the decision of a woman to get pregnant and therefore they should deal with the consequences. Beyond the obvious fact that pregnancy is not always a choice, it supports the fact that anything a citizen of the United States chooses to do should not be used as a reason to deny rights to something that a citizen has no ability to choose.
The biggest example of this is LGBT rights. One can not choose their sexual orientation. The debate is over on that. So to deny someone the ability to express their identity through marriage, adoption rights, partner benefits, or military service because your religion has a problem is not a sufficient excuse. If we replaced LGBT with minority groups, there would be a clear public outcry. No one who supports individual rights would say that religious freedom justifies racism or sexism. Yet religious freedom has been a convenient way to support homophobia.
This is how discrimination shifts. It is extremely hard to change people’s prejudices. However, when society changes people need to change with it. This does not mean changing viewpoints, but it does mean changing the expression of those viewpoints to allow them to continue. It is much harder to be overtly homophobic. So, therefore, the term becomes “religious freedom.” The ingenuity of it is that it becomes a form of group identification and empowerment. My freedom means the denial of someone else’s freedom.
The second major reason is that it is hypocritical. The Freedom of Religion as a constitutional right is quite different then how it is mostly expressed in the modern context. The Founding Fathers wanted to keep government out of religion. They did not want the government to attack particular religions or to be a single denomination. Remember that the Founding Fathers had diverse religious affiliations with denominations. The Establishment Clause stops the government from promoting any particular religion.
Which shows the hypocritical nature of those that use religious freedom. When used by the Trump administration it is almost exclusively to promote a particular brand of religion. Because if it was truly religious freedom then why would Sharia Law be a problem? Why would the religion of an individual be an automatic reason to attack someone? It also shows the dangerous nature of missing the point of Freedom of Religion. It is to both free citizens from a religious government, but also to stop a government from stopping any expression of religion.
Then the argument used by individuals is that particular government policies that support LGBT or abortion or contraception are an overstep on their faith. However, this is a misunderstanding of public accommodation. Public accommodation law states that everyone gets the same full and equal use of public goods and services. You don’t get to pick and choose which ones you give. So if you are a baker that does not want to bake a cake for a gay couple there are a couple of issues. You receive public support in many ways. The streets that cars use to reach your bakery. The police protection you receive so your store is not robbed. Because your business receives public goods and services you are required to offer them in the same manner, without prejudice.
The same goes for public schools. If a parent does not like that prayer is not done for a sports team or by a teacher it is not an inalienable right. Remember, a child gets to go to school for free. If a parent does not like the lack of religious affiliation they can attend a private, religious school. They cannot change the law to allow a particular expression of faith.
Religious practice and belief are not always protected. I can’t practice human sacrifice because my religion dictates it because it causes harm and an elimination of rights to the person I am killing.
The other problem with religious freedom is that is inherently exclusionary. Over 25% of Americans do not believe in God. Why do we get to ignore the wishes of over 100 million American citizens? Also, when we choose a particular religion, it always excludes any other belief.
Religious freedom is not Freedom of Religion. The latter is designed to allow citizens to practice their own religion and for the government to stay an institution that does not inherently subjugate particular views. The former is just an excuse to hate others. When we lose sight of how our rights are defined, it creates a dangerous trend where the language can be used to support any number of claims. This is not to attack religion, but to protect freedom.