Religious Freedom Day — practicing your religion is not a license to discriminate against others

Religious Freedom Day — practicing your religion is not a license to discriminate against others
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If an atheist and a Catholic walked into a bar, how do you think their conversation would go? It is safe to assume that after a few pints they would turn to issues that spark spirited disagreement. The existence of God in the Holy Eucharist as eternal truth or manmade fiction. The veneration of the Virgin Mary, the list goes on. Nevertheless, this atheist and Catholic do agree on one thing — the right to religious freedom.

On this Religious Freedom Day, let’s remember that the United States was founded by individuals fleeing religious persecution who understood the importance of both the freedom to practice your faith, as well as the freedom for others to practice a different faith or no faith at all.

It is that freedom, which allows us to respectfully disagree (and fight to the death for our right to do so). And it is why we are so worried that the true meaning of religious liberty is getting lost in current debates.


For years, religious arch-conservatives have waved the flag of religious liberty to discriminate against LGBT individuals, deny women health care, and mislead women seeking information about their reproductive care options. And in a stunning display of audacity and entitlement, they have asserted their right to do so with taxpayer money. A look at the policy priorities of any religious right advocacy group reveals a litany of proposals aimed at siphoning public money to religious institutions, with no accountability or oversight.

And in the Trump era, they are now able to have their cake and eat it too: literally and figuratively. In the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, Jack Phillips's petition argues that his right to free speech and religious exercise means that he can deny selling awedding cake to a same sex couple. But what about that couple’s right to express their love through their wedding ceremony and their cake?

They argue for free speech, but then try to muzzle others. Here in Washington, D.C., the Catholic archdiocese argued that their free speech was impinged upon when they tried to run Christmas ads on the metro.

But when Catholics for Choice ran metro ads condemning the bishops for their ban on condoms, the same church that now cries foul launched an all-out attack to censor them. In the Arizona legislature, when two atheist lawmakers, former State Representative (now State Senator) Juan Mendez and State Representative Athena Salman, offered humanist invocations, they were greeted with scorn and condemnation by their arch-conservative colleagues, including the Speaker of the House.

Christian arch-conservatives say they are being persecuted for their beliefs. But when migrants and refugees — many of whom have indeed survived abuse and persecution — seek emergency contraception in religiously affiliated shelters they are denied care despite these shelters receiving taxpayer funds. As we saw in the Jane Doe case and subsequent cases, the religious right and their allies in the Trump administration do everything possible to block young women from making their own decisions about whether to continue an unwanted pregnancy.

The religious right argues that their consciences are violated because they are “forced” to cover essential health care for employees through the Affordable Care Act’s birth control benefit But what about a woman’s conscience? What if she has her own moral reasons why she needs that birth control to make wise decisions for her wellbeing and that of her family?

The sad truth is that the religious right is not defending religious liberty — they are redefining it into a broad license to discriminate against anyone for any reason that is rooted in religious belief. Religious liberty has been a cornerstone of our democracy meant to protect the persecuted. Now we see it used as a mantle to exert power and deny rights to the most vulnerable.

And it is everyday people that get hurt as a result. The woman who needs birth control to take care of the children she already has and make sound decisions about when and whether to have more children.

The couple that finds the ultimate gift, unconditional love, but then struggles to celebrate that commitment with family and friends because they are denied wedding services. The young migrant woman who comes seeking a better life only to be shunned by the very people that claim to help her when she asks about her reproductive care options.

That is why this Catholic and atheist believe we must reclaim true religious freedom — freedom of and from religion. It is what makes America a beacon for those fleeing persecution. It is what makes America a tolerant society for all. And dare we say it: it is what makes America great.

Jon O’Brien is the president of Catholics for Choice. Larry Decker is the executive director of the Secular Coalition for America.