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Transition in religious freedom from beliefs to hatred

Recent examples of the old meaning of the term
religious tolerance:
attacks on believers by others

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Religious freedom from the mid 20th century to now:

Religious freedom once referred mostly to ideas and internal practices of various faith groups. It used to mean the freedom of individuals and their religious groups to hold unorthodox beliefs and engage in unusual practices without experiencing physical attacks or other forms of oppression from the outside: governments, other religious groups, and individuals.

As described in a separate essay, the meaning of "religious freedom" appears to be transitioning from freedom of belief to the freedom by religious individuals and groups to the freedom to discriminate against and denigrate groups with whom they disagree. The latter are typically sexual minorities.

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Examples of recent conflicts over the old meaning of religious freedom:

bullet The freedom to wear jewelry containing a religious symbol -- a Christian cross, a Jewish star of David, a Wiccan or other Neopagan pentagram, etc. Restrictions on some symbols is common in some schools where administrations are concerned with what they consider to be gang symbols.
bullet The freedom to  worship freely: This freedom exists today throughout most of North America. However, this was not always the case:
bullet During World War II, the Jehovah's Witnesses were banned in Canada because of their conscientious objections to serving in war. Some of their children were expelled from school; other children were placed in foster homes; some members were jailed; men who refused to enter the army were sent to work camps. Less oppressive attacks against their religion occurred in the U.S. The resulting lawsuits, which often ended up in the Supreme Courts of the U.S. and Canada, contributed greatly to the establishment of freedom of religion in the two countries.

bullet Before 1965, a person could only be accepted as a conscientious objector if they were a member of a traditional pacifist religious group and had received religious training. The Supreme Court ruling in United States v. Seeger (1965) broadened this requirement to include people who based their objection to war on their "general theistic belief systems" or their Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist faith. 2 It was not until another Supreme Court decision Welsh v. United States (1970) that conscientious objection status could be claimed on the basis of the "depth and fervency" of a person's beliefs which did not have to be based on a religious faith. 3
bullet Some Native Americans have been arrested for engaging in the ritual smoking of peyote and other hallucinogenic substances -- a religious tradition that dates back centuries if not millennia. Meanwhile, drinking of wine during the Roman Catholic Mass, and in some Protestant communion services continues without government suppression.
bullet Followers of Santeria have been persecuted because their ceremonies sometimes involve the ritual killing of chickens and other small animals -- not unlike the Temple practices performed by ancient Hebrews.
bullet Children have been removed from Wiccan parents because a child care worker mistook the adults for Satanists and mistakenly believed that the children would be sacrificed to Satan on their sixth birthday. A Baptist pastor and a leading fundamentalist teleminister advocated genocide against Wiccans and other Neopagans in the 1990s. With the fading of belief in Satanic Ritual Abuse that started in the 1990s, and the increase awareness of Wiccans and other Neopagan faith groups, hatred and misunderstanding of Wicca are rapidly fading.
bullet A number of new religious movements split away from the main Mormon church when the latter -- at least temporarily -- suspended the practice of polygyny. Of these movements, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) is the largest. Plural marriages form a major part of their beliefs. Their main presence is in two adjoining communities in Colorado and Utah. They have been largely ignored by the state governments. However, a raid by Texas authorities occurred in 2008, and charges have been laid during 2009 against leaders in the FLDS town of Bountiful, BC in Canada.
bullet This web site is discriminated against by the Canadian government. They do not allow religious organizations to register as charities -- and to provide income tax receipts for donations -- unless the group teaches the existence of a deity. Teaching about any God or Goddess or combination of Gods and Goddesses will do. Because of our mandate to explain all points of views on all religions, we cannot meet this requirement.
bullet The list goes on.
bullet The freedom to proselytize: In Quebec, Canada, Jehovah's Witnesses were persecuted for following the Great Commandment by going door to door teaching their beliefs. By 1953, almost 1,700 prosecutions were filed against their members, ranging from bylaw infractions to blasphemous libel and sedition. The Witnesses' legal battles played a major role in defining the allowable limits of government interference with religion and establishing religious freedom in Canada and the U.S. on a firm footing.
bullet The Satanic Panic: The Satanic Panic of the 1980s and early 1990s, was supported by Recovered Memory Therapy which recovered childhood "memories" of events that generally had never happened. This led to the widespread belief that underground Satanic groups were kidnapping and abusing children. They were accused of murdering up to 60,000 infants and other children each year. This resulted in a great deal of persecution and hatred directed at Wiccans and other Neopagans, including some shootings and at least one lynching. The panic finally subsided when a decade and a half of police investigations failed to uncover any physical evidence of any such murders.

Over time, reasonable accommodations have been reached between church and state in almost all of these cases. Religious freedom, in the sense of freedom to believe unorthodox thoughts and express them, is widely enjoyed in North America. Particularly in America, many law suites citing First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution have resulted in persons of all faiths -- and none -- enjoying relative religious liberty and freedom from oppression and discrimination.

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Continuing government restrictions on religious freedom:

Religious freedom is not necessarily absolute. Just as it is not permissible to yell "Fire" in a crowded theatre, there are many laws that restrict practices that are grounded in religious beliefs. Some are controversial. For example, there are laws against:

  • Parents denying medical attention to their children in favor of exclusively relying on prayer to cure them. This is most often done by parents who literally interpret the Bible's commands on prayer.

  • Parents having a genital mutilation procedure performed on their girls. This is a partly cultural practice found most often among Christian, Muslim and Animist immigrants from some North African countries.

  • Political advocacy by clergy and denominations: The IRS does not allow religious tax exempt groups to continue enjoying their status if they engage in political campaigning. This includes recommending that their members vote for specific candidates for office, or for specific political parties.

  • The practice of polygyny -- one man marrying multiple wives -- as practiced by some fundamentalist Mormon denominations.

  • Those parents who refuse to vaccinate their children for religious reasons.

  • The practice by some parents of painful corporal punishment or abuse of children.

  • Refusal to have one's picture taken for a driver's license because of religious prohibitions against graven images.

  • Refusal to install warning reflective signs on buggies, because of religious prohibitions against decoration.

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Anti-Catholicism," Wikipedia, as at: 2009-DEC-09, at:
  2. "UNITED STATES v. SEEGER, 380 U.S. 163 (1965)," U.S. Supreme Court, 1965-MAR-08, at:
  3. "WELSH v. UNITED STATES, 398 U.S. 333 (1970)," U.S. Supreme Court, 1970-JUN-15, at: at:

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Copyright 2009 & 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.
Originally written: 2009-DEC-19
Latest update: 2011-AUG-08
Author: B.A. Robinson

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