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Conflicting definitions of "religious freedom"

Part 1: Introduction to the two meanings of the
term "religious freedom:" the freedom of belief
vs. the freedom to discriminate
against others.

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About the transition between the two meanings:

As mentioned in the menu for this section, we have noticed a radical shift in the definition of "religious freedom" and its near-synonym "religious liberty:"

  • FROM the historical meaning: the freedom of religious belief, practice, assembly, and proselytizing by believers. Attacks on religious freedom typically:
    • Involved governments or other larger faith groups as perpetrators, and

    • Involved faith groups or individual believers as victims.

  • TO the freedom demanded by faith groups or believers to oppress or denigrate others, to discriminate against them, and/or to mount political campaigns to deny them equal rights. New attacks on religious freedom typically:
    • Involve individual believers, faith groups, companies or parachurch organizations as perpetrators, and

    • Involve either women or members of sexual minorities as victims.

Religious freedom once referred mostly to the believers' right to express religious ideas and to engage in religious practices. Now it is becoming mostly about the freedom for individuals and religious groups to take actions that limit other people's rights and freedoms without incurring negative consequences themselves.

Some attempts are being made to legalize and protect religiously motivated discrimination by faith groups, faith-based agencies, other groups, and individuals. They are sometimes called "conscience clauses," or "licenses to discriminate" bills.

Recently, there have been two major changes with regard to marriage equality in the U.S.:

  • The legalization of same-sex marriage in the District of Columbia, and 17 states as of early 2014, and

  • Rulings in late 2013 and early 2014 by six federal District Court judges that have legalized same-sex marriages in six mostly conservative states: Kentucky, Michigan, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Virginia. All six of these rulings are currently stayed by courts pending appeals to various U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal.

These changes seem to have rapidly increased attempts to pass state laws that protect both:

  • Clergy who -- because of their beliefs and/or the policy of their faith group -- want to refuse to marry same-sex couples, and

  • Wedding photographers, wedding cake bakers, hall renters, and other companies in the wedding industry who want to refuse to provide goods and services to same-sex couples for their upcoming weddings.

In addition, there are a number of lawsuits by secular companies whose owners want to veto their employees' decision over birth control. The Affordable Care Act contains what is referred to as the "HHS Mandate." It requires companies' health insurance plans to give employees free access to contraceptives if they want to use them. Owners of some secular companies personally reject the free use of some contraceptives on religious grounds and want to be able to prevent their employees from having this choice.

In reality, clergy have no need for such protection because the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution already gives them absolute protection if they want to refuse to marry any couple for any reason. For centuries, clergy have refused to solemnize marriage for couples who are of the "wrong" religion, or who are inter-faith or interracial couples, or are regarded as too immature, or are of the same sex, or include a disabled person, etc. To our knowledge, no member of the clergy has ever been charged or prosecuted anywhere in the U.S. for their decision to not marry a couple, ever.

On the other hand, many states have human rights legislation that requires public accommodations to not discriminate among their customers. Public accommodations are individuals or companies that provide goods and services to the general public. These laws typically prohibit discrimination based on race, skin color, nationality, gender, etc. Some of these states' laws also include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected groups.

Legislators in some states have attempted to pass laws to protect wedding photographers, wedding cake bakers, and similar businesses so that they can discriminate against same-sex couples while having immunity from prosecution under the state's human rights legislation. 1 The legislatures of Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee -- and perhaps others -- have attempted to pass this type of pro-discrimination legislation. Arizona's bill made it to the Governor's desk where it was vetoed. So far, the others have not made it that far.

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The conflict between the new meaning of "religious freedom" and the "Golden Rule:"

Curiously, most of the media don't seem to notice that this new trend towards using religious belief to discriminate against others is in direct contradiction to the Ethic of Reciprocity. In Judaism and Christianity, this is commonly called the "Golden Rule:" The latter simply states that we are to treat other people as we would wish to be treated ourselves. Almost all organized religions and secular belief systems have such an ethic at the core of their teaching.

The Golden Rule was created for the individual believer to apply to the entire human race. Unfortunately, it is too often applied only to fellow believers.

In the conflicts over SSMs and companies in the wedding industry, the Golden Rule is sometimes inverted to "treat other people as we would never wish to be treated ourselves."

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Activity by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU):

The ACLU recognized this trend toward the freedom to discriminate. They launched a emailed newsletter circa 2012-AUG. New editions are published monthly. You can request a subscription from:

Their web site contains a section titled "Using Religion to Discriminate."

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They state:

"With increasing frequency, we are seeing individuals and institutions claiming a right to discriminate – by refusing to provide services to women and LGBT people – based on religious objections.  The discrimination takes many forms, including:

  • Religiously affiliated schools firing women because they became pregnant while not married;

  • Business owners refusing to provide insurance coverage with no co-pay for contraceptive supplies for their employees;

  • Graduate students, training to be social workers, refusing to counsel gay people;

  • Pharmacies turning away women seeking to fill birth control prescriptions;

  • Bridal salons, photo studios, wedding cake bakers, reception halls, etc. refusing goods and services to same-sex couples planning their weddings,

According to the Human Rights Campaign, the 2014-2015 employment contract between the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati and its employees allows for the church to fire any gay or lesbian employees that they find. They can also fire any employee who supports what they call the "homosexual lifestyle." That might include any employee who is a member of a marriage equality advocacy group, or who attends a gay pride parade to support a relative who is gay or lesbian, or perhaps even being on a mailing list of a LGBT-positive group. 2
lgbt colors It may be possible that simply wearing socks that resemble the colors on the LGBT flag could result in an employee being fired by the Archdiocese.

While the situations may differ, one thing remains the same: religious belief and religious freedom are being used as justification to violate the Golden Rule by discriminating against and harming others, generally in the name of Christianity." 3 

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This topic continues in the next essay

Site navigation:

Home > Religious freedom > Transition > here

Home > Important essays > Religious freedom > Transition > here

Home > Religious information > Religious freedom > Transition > here

Home > Human rights > Religious freedom > Transition > here

Reference used:

The following information source was used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlink is not necessarily still active today.

  1. Chas Sisk, "TN lawmakers drop wedding vendors bill," The Tennessean, 2014-FEB-18, at:
  2. Paul Guequierre, "New Extreme Cincinnati Archdiocese Teacher Contract Takes Anti-LGBT Discrimination to a New Level," Human Rights Campaign, 2014-MAR-18, at:
  3. "Using Religion to Discriminate," ACLU, at:

Copyright 2009 t0 2014 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.
Originally written: 2009-DEC-08
Latest update: 2014-MAR-31
Author: B.A. Robinson

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