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Religious Tolerance logo

"Religious freedom" changing from freedom of
religious beliefs
freedom to hate and discriminate

What religious freedom and oppression
once involved, and what it is becoming

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What religious freedom and oppression once involved:

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 beliefs and freely engage in practices that others might consider unorthodox or unusual -- without experiencing physical attacks or other forms of oppression from governments and other religious groups.

The history of religious freedom over the past few centuries has had its ups and downs. A random collection of events are:

16th century: As we updated this essay on Election Day, 2010-NOV-02, it was the 477th anniversary of an important event in 1533 in Paris. France. John Calvin had to lower himself on a rope made out of bed sheets to escape persecution by Catholics who disliked his reformist beliefs. A few years later he made it safety in Geneva, Switzerland. Eventually, his beliefs led to the formation of the Puritan and Presbyterian movements.

17th century: The Thirty Years' War in Europe was triggered by a religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics. About one in three Germans died during the conflict and entire regions were extensively destroyed, "denuded by the foraging armies." 1 However, it resulted in one positive development: the Peace of Westphalia. This was an agreement to allow the head of each state to select the official religion in his area from from among three options: Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism and Calvinism. Citizens who followed a religion different from the established faith were permitted to practice their religion in public during specified hours, and in private at any time. This was a phenomenal advance over the previous restrictions placed on religious expression. 2

Late 18th century: As the American colonies achieved independence from England, the founders were concerned that religious strife and hatred might be imported to the New World from Europe. They passed the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which prohibiting the establishment of an official religion for the U.S. This restriction was later extended to the states. The Amendment was later interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court to follow Thomas Jefferson's concept of a "wall of separation" between church and state, in which religious groups and the government would stay out of each other's way. In practice, this meant that the government and all its branches including public schools would adopt a neutral stance towards all religion. It would not promote one religion over another, or promote religion over secularism, or promote secularism over religion.

Early 19th century: During the early 19th century, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly referred to as the Mormons) were attacked and murdered by more orthodox Christians. Hundreds died. The conflict was largely based on the Mormons' belief that the Book of Mormon  -- along with the Bible -- was a second testament to Jesus Christ. Later, they experienced continual oppression from the Federal Government because of their practice of polygyny -- promoting the marriage of one man to multiple women.

Later 19th century: During the second-half of the 19th century, Roman Catholics grew from about 5% of the American population to about 15%. Many Protestants became alarmed at the rapid influx of Roman Catholic immigrants. A national organization, the American Protective Association, was founded specifically to promote anti-Catholicism and other prejudices. According to Wikipedia:

"The resulting 'nativist' movement, which achieved prominence in the 1840s, was whipped into a frenzy of anti-Catholicism that led to mob violence, the burning of Catholic property, and the killing of Catholics. This violence was fed by fears that Catholics were destroying the culture of the United States. Irish Catholic immigrants were blamed, unjustly, for raising the taxes of the country as well as for spreading violence and disease. The nativist movement found expression in a national political movement called the Know-Nothing Party." 3

20th and 21st century: In North America, many lawsuits have been by faith groups to establish their freedom of religious belief and practice. The Jehovah's Witnesses were particularly active in this area during the 20th century. Some of the conflicts included:

  • Freedom to wear religious symbols in schools.

  • Banning of the Jehovah's Witnesses denomination in Canada during World War II because of their conscientious objections to being drafted.

  • Granting of conscientious objector status only to members of pacifist religious groups.

  • Arresting some Native Americans for the use of peyote during religious rituals.

  • Arresting followers of Santeria for the killing of chickens during religious rituals.

  • Removing children from the homes of Wiccans and other Neopagan parents.

  • Advocacy of genocide against Wiccans and other Neopagans.

  • Raids on fundamentalist Mormon groups because of their practice of polygamy.

  • Refusal by the Canadian government to register religious charities unless they teach belief in one or more deities.

  • Persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses for door-to-door proselytizing in Quebec, Canada.

  • During the Satanic Panic from 1980 to circa 1995, hatred was whipped up against religious Satanists, Wiccans, other Neopagans, and others accused of torturing children in Satanic rituals. It finally ended when over a decade of police investigations turned up zero hard evidence that the abuse had occurred.

Religious freedom is not necessarily absolute . Just as it is not permissible to yell "Fire" in a crowded theatre, there are some laws that are active today and restrict people's practices that are derived from their religious beliefs. For example, there are laws:

These topics are covered in more details in another essay.

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What religious freedom is becoming:

The definition of religious freedom is beginning to shift. In a growing number of conflicts, religious freedom now means the freedom to hate, denigrate, oppress, reject, and discriminate against minority groups, and to prevent them from attaining equal civil rights.

Gary Laderman, writing for in late 2010, said:

"God hates fags. Burn the Qur’an. The president is a Muslim socialist. Jews control the media. Immigrants are invading America..."

"Hate is as American as apple pie. A sentiment stitched into the fabric of national life from the early stirrings of Revolution in the colonies (they hated the old rulers across the Atlantic) to contemporary feelings about the government (we hate the rulers in Congress). What’s most striking about this embedded and endemic force circulating through the body politic for all these years is just how valuable hatred can be for some segments of our culture; so valuable that hatred can be sacred for some."

"Perhaps religion itself, at some early evolutionary point in human history, emerged not as an outgrowth of altruism or loving bonds between community members, but rather as a result of hateful differences between groups. Religion has a rich history of promoting hate and gaining rewards from this hatred: more faithful adherents for sure, but also at times material wealth, political power, and social authority. The notion that religion contributes to the social emphasis on hate and plays a role in the effervescent energies devoted to stirring up hateful sentiment is elementary to many students and observers on the subject. In the U.S., hate is a driver constantly shaping and reshaping the religious landscape." 4

We have documented some examples of this new form of religious freedom: the freedom to hate and oppress minorities -- particularly sexual minorities such as gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender people and transsexuals.

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References used:

  1. "Thirty Years' War," Wikipedia, as at: 2010-NOV-02, at:
  2. Peace of Westphalia," Wikipedia, as at: 2010-OCT-24, at:
  3. "Anti-Catholicism," Wikipedia, as at: 2009-DEC-09, at:
  4. Gary Laderman, "Hate, an American voter value," Religion Dispatches Magazines, 2010-OCT-31, at:
  5. "A bill 18-482 in the council of the District of Columbia," Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary, 2009-NOV-10, at: This is a PDF file.
  6. "Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA): Threatens Christians & Business Owners," The Traditional Values Coalition, 2009-SEP-22, 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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