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Religious freedom and liberty

Introduction: 2 meanings of religious freedom & liberty

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About the meaning of the terms "religious freedom" and "religious liberty:"

People, whether they be theologians, clergy, laity or secularists, often assign very different meanings to common words and phrases. This causes incredible confusion and frustration when people try to communicate with others outside of their religious group.

Some examples of multiple meanings are found in the definitions of who can legitimately call themselves Christian and the definitions of what a religion is.

The terms "religious freedom" and "religious liberty" also have more than meaning.

  • The traditional meaning of Religious freedom/liberty is for a person or group to have the freedom to hold different religious beliefs, to express those beliefs, to assemble with others at religious services, to proselytize freely, etc. -- without little or no oppression or interference, and few restrictions.

  • The two terms are now being increasingly defined as the freedom -- based on one's religious beliefs -- to refuse services to others, to denigrate others, to restrict the civil rights of others, etc.

Under the old definition of the terms, it was religious believers who were the victims of attacks by the government, other faith groups, etc. With the new definition, it is religious believers who are attacking others.

On this web site, we normally discuss the term religious freedom in its traditional meaning:

Religious freedom means that an individual or group can:

bullet Without oppression, believe, worship and witness (or practice freedom from belief, worship and witness), as they wish;

bullet Change their beliefs or their religion at any time; and

bullet Associate with others to express their beliefs. 1

During the past six decades, most people in North America have enjoyed relative religious freedom. There have been some restrictions on Native Americans, Wiccans and other Neopagans, Muslims, and others, but they have been relatively rare and minor when compared to the horrendous experiences in the past, when for example:

  • During the Thirty Years War (1619-1648) the German states lost 25% to 40% of their population due to religious wars between Catholics and Protestants, 2 or

  • During World War II when one in three European Jews were murdered during the Nazi Holocaust for the simple reason that they were Jews.

With the arrival of the new millennium, religious freedom seems to be gradually changing its meaning. When it is discussed in the media today, it often refers to the freedom for an individual, clergyperson, or denomination to express condemnation, spread misinformation or disinformation, exclude, denigrate, oppress, refuse to deal with others, and/or express hatred towards other individuals or groups. Often, the right to restrict the civil rights of the targeted groups is included. Most frequently, women and sexual minorities are the victims; the latter are commonly referred to as the LGBT community, made up of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender persons and transsexuals.

In brief:

Religious freedom used to mean freedom of belief and practice.

In recent decades, the definition has been changing.

It is becoming: the use of religious belief to justify hatred of others, to legitimate discrimination against them, and/or to urge that their civil rights be limited.

That is, religious freedom used to mean freedom to express one's faith. It is becoming the freedom to denigrate others, oppress others, or withhold services from others for religious reasons. A very common expression of this new form of religious freedom and liberty is found in conscience clauses governing behavior in the workplace. For example:

  • A fertility clinic may welcome any member of the public who has fertility concerns. However, a physician hired by the clinic may refuse, on religious grounds, to assist a gay or lesbian.

  • A pharmacist may believe, contrary to the conclusions reached by medical researchers, that morning after pills can prevent the implantation of a zygote -- a fertilized ovum -- in the lining of the uterus, thus preventing a pregnancy. She or he may further believe that this is a form of abortion. On religious grounds, the pharmacist may refuse to fill a prescription for a woman who wishes to avoid -- not terminate -- a pregnancy.

  • A marriage counseling group may welcome any couple with marital problems. A counselor working for the group may wish to withhold counseling fro same-sex couple -- a decision based on a claim of religious freedom to discriminate against gays, lesbians and bisexuals.

Meanwhile, two main fears are increasing among some religious believers who are involved in this new meaning of religious freedom:

  • The fear that their freedom to denigrate and oppress others will be restricted, and

  • The fear that they and fellow believers will become regarded as bigots by the general population, in the same way that sexist and racist persons are.

Example showing the difference between the two meanings of "religious freedom:"

Three religious freedom cases were among those decided by the European Court of Human Rights on 2012-JAN-15:

  1. During 2006, A British Airways employee, Nadia Eweida, was a check-in clerk for the airline. She wore a crucifix at a time when British Airways banned their employees from wearing visible religious symbols. She was sent home during 2006-NOV. She sued her employer for damages and lost wages, Eweida did not succeed in the British Courts, but later appealed to the European Court and won. The court treated her case as a freedom of religious speech matter. They ruled that the company policy "amounted to an interference with her right to manifest her religion." When informed of the decision, she jumped for joy and said:

    "Thank you Jesus. ... It’s a vindication that Christians have a right to express their faith on par with other colleagues at work visibly and not be ashamed of their faith."

    British Prime Minister David Cameron issued a tweet saying that he was "... delighted that principle of wearing religious symbols at work has been upheld." 3

  2. Lillan Ladele was a local registrar in the UK who refused to serve same-sex couples applying for civil partnerships. She refused on the basis of her conservative Christian faith. She lost her case before the European Court.

  3. Gary McFarlane was a marriage counselor who was hired to offer sex therapy to couples. He deviated from the group's policies by refusing to offer therapy to same-sex couples. He lost his case before the European Court.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty -- a British human rights group -- said that the decisions are:

"... an excellent result for equal treatment, religious freedom and common sense. ... [Eweida] had just as much a right to express her faith as a Sikh man in a turban or a Muslim woman with a head scarf. However the court was also right to uphold judgments in other cases that employers can expect staff not to discriminate in the discharge of duties at work."

Unfortunately, many examples of the new meaning of "religious freedom/liberty" are not as clear as the above examples. For example, in 2012 & 2013, there has been considerable conflict over a federal Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate for employers to allow their employees access to birth control at no cost. The conflict involved:

  • Some employers -- particularly those of religiously-affiliated organizations -- feel they have the religious freedom -- based on their religious beliefs -- to deny their employees access to birth control.

  • Some employees have made a personal decision to use birth control. Their decision typically has moral, health, financial, and religious components. They resent their employers withholding birth control supplies from them because of the employer's religious beliefs.

  • The government is insisting on free access to birth control to almost all empolyees because they regard it as a health measure and because an increase in the use of birth control would drastically reduce the number of abortions and the total costs of health care in the U.S.

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About religious tolerance: what it is and isn't:

Religious tolerance is a term that it tied closely to religious freedom. If a society extends tolerance to followers of all religions -- and to followers of no religion -- then everyone will probably enjoy religious freedom. "Religious tolerance," as it is most commonly defined, means that people:

bullet Extend religious freedom to people of all religious traditions, even though they probably disagree with most of their beliefs and/or practices.

This definition does not require a person or group to:

bullet Accept all religions as equally true.

bullet Refrain from comparing the beliefs and practices of different religions or faith groups.

bullet Refrain from comparing the religious beliefs and practices with the conclusions of scientists.

bullet Avoid criticizing actions, statements, and policies of religious groups when those activities harm others.

Thomas Jefferson expressed religious tolerance with superb clarity when he said:

" does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

Another contrasting definition is used primarily by some fundamentalist and other evangelical Christians: To be religiously tolerant, one must accept all religions as equally true. As a result, "religious tolerance" has a very negative connotation to many religious conservatives even as it has a very positive meaning to most others.

References used:

  1. Paraphrased, with changes, from Forum 18 at:

  2. "Thirty Years' War," Wikipedia, as on 2012-MAR-07, at:

  3. Jill Lawless, "Christian employee discriminated against for wearing crucifix, court rules," Associated Press, 2013-JAN-15

Site navigation:

Home > Religious freedom > here

or Home > Important essays > Religious freedom > here

or Home > Religious information > Religious freedom > here

or Home > Human rights > Religious freedom > here

Copyright 2006 to 2013 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2006-NOV-05
Latest update: 2013-MAR-10
Author: B.A. Robinson

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