Controversial Topic: Religious Freedom

Controversial Topic: Religious Freedom

We take a deep dive into the controversial topic of religious freedom, exploring both sides of the debate, including the current state of the debate, key moments in history, influential people, and books that can help shed light on the topic.

Key Takeaways

  • Religious freedom is protected by the United States Constitution and has contributed to a diverse society. But religious liberty is also a hotly contested topic, too, between different church groups like Christians and Muslims, as well as non-believers.
  • Religious freedom has several elements that further complicate the issue, particularly the right to invoke exemption from certain laws (i.e., protection against religious persecution and discrimination).
  • Regardless of your stand, religious freedom benefits every individual and the American society in general. There are ways to protect and promote religious freedom, no matter your religious beliefs. Start by thinking of religious liberty as a fundamental human right.

On its surface, the religious freedom controversial topic concerns the right of individuals to practice their religion freely and without infringement by individuals, groups, or the government. But since the dawn of American history, the debate over religious liberty has been clouded by conflicts between different groups and belief systems, especially when the belief system of one group risks discrimination against another group. While the right to practice one’s religion is a core Constitutional protection, debate persists over the meaning of religious freedom and whether this freedom can be used to exempt groups from certain laws, including anti-discrimination laws. Because this controversial remains fiercely debated in American public life, it is also a popular subject for a persuasive essay.

Religious Freedom in a Nutshell

According to sociology, modern religion is an institutionalized system of sacred beliefs, traditions, and practices that manifest in tangible and intangible forms. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism are among the world’s major religions with about 6 billion members. About 1.2 billion people consider themselves secular/non-religious (e.g., atheists and agnostics).

Regardless of your religious beliefs, however, the issue of religious freedom or religious liberty has a direct and deep impact on your life in general and your civil rights in particular. Your willingness to protect and promote religious freedom is a must for a civil society!

Importance of Religious Freedom in Modern Society

At its most basic, restrictions on religious freedom can hamper the fundamental human freedoms for all of us! We must have the right to live our lives according to our religious beliefs—or their absence—without fear of punishment from external institutions including the government. This concept is embedded in the First Amendment, and it’s a hallowed tradition in American society.

Here are reasons why religious freedom or religious liberty is crucial for American society in particular and the international community in general:

  • Religious freedom is one of the pillars of other fundamental human rights. Studies have shown that societies with less religious freedom become more restrictive in their adoption of civil liberties, like freedom of speech and gender rights. Religious freedom allows individuals and groups to participate in exchange of ideas that, ultimately, strengthens society. Indeed, religious liberty at the individual level has a direct impact on the individual’s ability to thrive.
  • Religious freedom supports civil rights. The Founding Fathers considered religious freedom fundamental in the continued existence of the republic! The reason: When religious liberty is lost, civil liberties will soon be lost without religious liberty. As Alexis de Tocqueville said, “In America, it is religion which leads to enlightenment and the observance of divine laws which leads men to liberty.”

When people are free to express their religious beliefs, then they are also free to explore and flourish! With individuals becoming productive citizens, the society as a whole benefits from the fruits of their labor.

Effective Steps in the Protection of Religious Freedom

With that being said, the importance of protecting and promoting religious freedom cannot be overemphasized. But it can also be daunting to do so considering the contentiousness of the topic. Nonetheless, here are effective steps that an ordinary citizen with little legal, political or religious background can adopt toward this end.

  • Study the issues related to religious freedom with more thoughtful attention. By reading articles and essays in traditional and digital reliable publications, you can make meaningful contributions to discussions of religious liberty.
  • Demonstrate involvement in the political process by voting, supporting or opposing legislation, and participating in local and national initiatives. Let your voice be heard!
  • Speak up with civility, courage and respect for the religious beliefs of others, even if these are against your own. Religious tolerance is also a foundation of religious freedom.
  • Get to know individuals from other faiths and non-believers. You will find that despite your religious differences, you share common aspirations and concerns. Your open mind will open doors of opportunities for more interfaith interactions in larger groups, too.
  • Engage in interfaith activities, such as community projects, which strengthen bonds between individuals regardless of their religious beliefs. By putting your respect for religious freedom in practice, you’re contributing to stronger interfaith relationships.

Lastly, be vigilant in defense of every individual’s right to religious freedom! When we become intolerant of other people’s religious beliefs by keeping silent against possible discrimination, we are contributing to the slow but steady erosion of religious liberty.

The freedom to practice one’s religion is a cornerstone of the U.S. Constitution, and a cherished protection accorded to all Americans. Indeed, this is a freedom which the fledgling United States held up as a counterpoint to the Christian monarchies of Europe and, in the present day, from theocracies such as those in the Middle East and North Africa. The right to observe and practice one’s faith is, therefore, a fundamental principle underpinning American public life. This was the meaning of religious freedom espoused by some American settlers, particularly those who emigrated to escape religious persecution. So why is it such a controversial topic?

Historically, this controversial topic has been complicated by several distinct dimensions, including:

  • A conflict between those who practice certain religions, and those who would oppose this practice, such as in conflicts where European settlers restricted the practice of Native American rituals;
  • A tension between the Constitutional clause calling for the “separation of church and state,” and the considerable presence of religion in aspects of American life such as politics and commerce; and
  • The invocation of religious freedom as a right to exemption from existing laws and regulations, including anti-discrimination laws.

While all three of these dimensions figure prominently into the religious freedom debate, it is arguably the third of these that elevates religious freedom as a top controversial topic today. This is because the divergent perspectives on this dimension are closely tied to party politics in the U.S. Within the context of this dimension, advocates of religious freedom often align with conservative, right-leaning, and Republican political ideologies; whereas advocates for anti-discimination laws often align with progressive, left-leaning, and Democratic political ideologies.

On one side of this debate topic, advocates for religious freedom argue that their Constitutionally-protected rights exempts them from any obligation that might conflict with personal faith or belief, including, for instance, support of marriage rights for LGBTQ+ or the tax funding of reproductive rights including access to abortion. The religious freedom rationale has been invoked in legal and political contexts as just cause for opposing in both practical application and policy development the extension of certain civil rights to the LGBTQ+ community, reproductive rights to women, and more.

On the other side of this debate are those who would argue that the invocation of religious freedom for exemption from laws aimed at protecting specific groups or rights is a rationalization for discrimination. Those in support of religious tolerance may argue that the Constitution does not protect the right to discriminate on the basis of religious belief, and that the advancement of civil rights for any group does not impede upon the freedom of another group to practice its faith.

To clarify, this controversy is not specifically about LGBTQ+ rights, but advances in these rights have played a major role in bringing the conversation over religious freedom into the current spotlight. For instance, as advocacy for LGBTQ+ rights has grown, and as new policy shifts have expanded protections for LGBTQ+ communities, those opposed to these shifts have identified religious freedom as a primary cause for their opposition. To the perspective of those in opposition, religious freedom exemtps them from supporting-whether through public service, commercial service, tax support, or otherwise-practices that contrast their religious beliefs such as same-sex marriage. Thus, for instance, a catering company with a faith-based opposition to gay marriage may invoke the right of religious freedom as a predicate for refusing service to a gay couple.

As a result, the controversy over religious freedom in the U.S. today is less likely to revolve around one’s freedom to practice rituals or engage in worship–rights which are roundly and institutionally protected by court precedent–but instead, is likely to invoke questions over the implied legal protections and exemptions that come with this freedom.

A Brief History of the Issue

The issue of religious freedom in the United States begins with the story of groups like the Quakers and the Puritans, both of whom emigrated to the New World to escape religious persecution in England. For these groups, arrival in the American colonies meant a newfound freedom to practice without imposition from their respective Christian European monarchies.

However, just as these groups evaded persecution in their countries of origin, some were inclined to practice their own form of exclusionary faith. Even in the earliest days of American settlement, a tension persisted between the practice of one’s own faith and the extent to which this practice could be used to justify infringement upon the rights of others.

According to the Smithsonian, religion was frequently invoked in the aggression shown by one group toward another. For instance, the arrival of various Christian denominations in the New World brought these demographics into immediate and constant conflict with the native groups inhabiting the land. Often, the Smithsonian points out, it was adherence to the principles of western monotheism that inclined treatment of natives as “heathen” for their own unique spiritual practices.

Puritans and Roger Williams

This tension, between religious freedom and religiously-motivated conflict was borne out not just between Christian colonists and native tribes, but between differing Christian denominations as well. One of the most notable examples comes from Puritan settlers who, in 1635, exiled internal dissident Roger Williams from the Massachusetts colony. According to, the expelled settler founded Rhode Island as the first colony without an established church, and in doing so, granted full freedom of religious practice to all groups, including Quakers and Jews.

The establishment of Rhode Island as a counterpoint to the practices in Massachusetts exemplifies an emergent reality. As the colonies moved toward unification and independence, each was governed by its own set of laws on the practice of religion. The establishment of the United States brought about a state-by-state patchwork of differing religious laws. According to “In Massachusetts, only Christians were allowed to hold public office, and Catholics were allowed to do so only after renouncing papal authority. In 1777, New York State’s constitution banned Catholics from public office (and would do so until 1806). In Maryland, Catholics had full civil rights, but Jews did not. Delaware required an oath affirming belief in the Trinity. Several states, including Massachusetts and South Carolina, had official, state-supported churches.”

Religious Freedom in Post-Revolutionary America

Many of the Founding Fathers subscribed to Enlightenment Era philosophies regarding the expanding freedom of religious practice. It was, therefore, considered a matter of considerable importance that the Constitution include such protections.

In this spirit, Virginia governor Thomas Jefferson, as early as 1779, introduced a bill that would guarantee legal equality for Virginia citizens of all religions, including those who practiced no religion. Jefferson wrote on the subject, “it 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.”

The bill failed to pass, but it did help to inform James Madison’s groundbreaking 1785 treatise, Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, which argued “that all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.”

This was a groundbreaking examination of the subject in American public life, one that gave way to mainstream acceptance for freedom of practice as well as the concept of “separation of church and state.”

It would also be an important forerunner to the 1791 ratification of the Bill of Rights. Indeed, according to the very First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

This Amendment forms the basis for the wide number of legal challenges, as well as complexities, surrounding the legal treatment of religious freedom. While the Constitution assures the separation of church and state, it does not, according to, “exclude religion from public life. From the colonial era to present, religion has played a major role in politics in the United States. The U.S. Supreme Court over the years has ruled inconsistently on matters of religious freedom, such as the display of religious symbols in government buildings.”

As a demonstration of this ongoing tension, the last of the State Churches was disestablished in 1820, however, teacher-led prayer in school remained in practice until it was abolished in 1962. This generally denotes the gradual but steady thrust toward wider secularization of American public life. And yet, American history is rife with examples of religious conflict which suggest the matter may not be settled by the Constitution alone...

Ghost Dance War (1890-1891)

The Ghost Dance War is a particularly bloody chapter in American history, one that points to the violence that often revolved around religious conflagration during the first American century. In the late 1800s, the Ghost Dance ceremony-so-named by white observers-proliferated among the Native American tribes of the west. At the heart of the ceremony was a spiritual entreaty to God to send the European settlers back to their own lands.

The Lakota tribes of the Dakotas were particularly devoted adherents to the Ghost Dance. Settlers in the Dakota region, fearful of the “ghostly” ritual, pushed for the arrival of U.S. troops. During the harsh winter of 1890, with tensions magnified by a series of broken treaties over railroad construction and gold prospecting in the Black Hills, and with U.S. troops now firmly planted in the Dakotas, a series of battles between troops and natives ensued. These skirmishes culminated in the Wounded Knee Massacre, in which military cannon fire mowed down 300 unarmed Lakota, mostly women and children, along with an additional 25 U.S. soldiers, mostly victims of friendly fire.

The incident sparked outrage with the American public, and brought the issue of religious liberty into stark view. While atrocities against native tribes would continue in America’s frontierlands, the massacre raised public consciousness on the subject of religious freedom and persecution.

Jehovah’s Witnesses and the U.S. Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court had rarely handled cases involving the free practice of religion prior to the early part of the 20th Century. It was then that the Jehovah’s Witness denomination of Christianity made what some would consider a major contribution to the Constitutional debate over religious freedom.

Jehovah’s Witnesses consider proselytizing a central obligation of their faith, and have invoked the First Amendment in defense of their right to do so. With much of this judicial activity centering around the World War II era-Jehovah’s Witnesses raised 23 First Amendment actions to the Supreme Court just between 1938 and 1946-many of the resulting decisions are considered landmark protections for the freedom of religious practice and expression. Of the 72 cases raised in defense of their First Amendment Rights, Jehovah’s Witnesses have gained favorable ruling 47 times.

Prayer in School

While Jehovah’s Witnesses have been largely vindicated in their right to proselytize, the courts have in other instances ruled to reinforce the separation of church and state. Among the most prominent and frequently revisited issues is prayer in school. As the United States became increasingly pluralistic and secular, the practice of compulsory school prayer gradually fell out of legal favor. A series of court decisions essentially held that the practice of school prayer is unconstitutional. According to:

  • Engel v. Vitale (1962), government-imposed nondenominational prayer in public school is unconstitutional;
  • Lee v. Weisman (1992), prayer established by a school principal at a middle school graduation is unconstitutional; and
  • Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe (2000), school officials “may not directly impose student-led prayer during high school football games nor establish an official student election process for the purpose of indirectly establishing such prayer.”

Sherbert v. Verner (1963)

The Supreme Court ruled, in 1963, that the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment placed the onus on the government to demonstrate a compelling interest and a narrow legal objective for any law that might deny unemployment compensation for an individual who is terminated due to a conflict between job requirements and religious obligations. The result of the case was the precedent-setting Sherbert Test, which would thereafter require a governing body to demonstrate both the compelling interest and narrow tailoring in any case where a law can be said to place a burden on the practice of religion. In 1990, the case of Employment Division v. Smith narrowed the Sherbert Test so that it no longer applies to religiously neutral laws which only burden religion incidentally, but that it still applies to laws that are discriminatory by nature or which are enforced in a way which is discriminatory. This test remains an important instrument for judicial analysis in cases which invoke the question of religious liberty.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) (1993)

Passed in 1993 as a way to provide Native American groups with a more substantial precedent in pursuing protections for various spiritual practices, the Act makes the federal government responsible for taking on additional obligations in the protection of religious exercise, including the provision of greater security for sacred and threatened Native American sites.

However, since its inception, it has been leveraged and challenged in numerous contexts. In particular, it was deemed unconstitutional to apply the federal RFRA to state laws. Therefore, today, more than 20 states have adopted their own RFRA laws, with their own cultural peculiarities. The RFRA still applies at the federal level, which is where it has sparked some controversy for the nature of its application.

A prominent example comes from retail chain The Hobby Lobby, which in 2014, emerged victorious from a Supreme Court case with a 5-4 ruling, invoking the RFRA and indicating that “religiously minded business owners essentially may ‘line-item veto’ birth control coverage out of their employees’ health plans. The ruling is the fruit of an intensive strategy by today’s religious conservative movement.”

In many ways, the ruling was actually quite narrow and has not materially impacted the access of employees to contraception. However, by “allowing closely held for-profit corporations to be exempt from a regulation its owners religiously object to,” it became “the first time that the court has recognized a for-profit corporation’s claim of religious belief.”

Cases like the Hobby Lobby decision underscore the tension that is highly visible in public, commercial, and political life today. In this instance, an organization was given the protection to be exempt from a legal requirement based on its religious affiliation. The decision sparked a great many as yet unanswered questions about how this might enable discrimination of certain groups under the terms of religious exemption, including groups advocating for or seeking access to reproductive rights and those who may lose anti-discrimination protections through such exemptions.

Top Ten Most Influential Books About Religious Freedom

Using our own backstage Ranking Analytics tools, we’ve compiled a list of the most influential books on the topic of “Freedom of Religion” between 1900 and 2020. This list is vetted to exclude irrelevant results, particularly works of fiction with incidental keywords matches. The result is a list which is dominated at the top by the holy scriptures themselves. While the resulting texts do little to illuminate the public and constitutional debate over the freedom of religious practice, they do offer a panoramic look at the belief systems that spark this debate.

Top Ten Most Influential Books About Religious Freedom
RankBook Title
2The Bible
3New Testament
4World Christian Encyclopedia
6Old Testament
7The Islamist
9Why I am Not a Muslim
10This Present Darkness
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The Current Controversy

Today, the debate over religious freedom offers centuries of court precedent which have largely upheld the core principles behind the freedom to worship and practice, as well as reinforcing the basic separation of church and state. However, today, there is an acute debate over how best to interpret religious freedom when one’s practice of such appears to infringe on the Constitutional and Civil Rights of another. Increasingly, the invocation of religious liberty in the United States has been used in political and economic contexts as a way of being exempted from legal or regulatory obligations.

This is especially consequential because of the impact that religious affiliation has on political affiliation and policy orientation. Prominent issues such as same-sex marriage and reproductive rights, in which political alignment in the U.S. is sharply divided along political lines, have brought protections for freedom of religion into direct conflict with anti-discrimination laws.

This points to the sometimes problematic ambiguity in the debate over religious freedom. Though there is a shared agreement over the separation of church and state, the considerable level of influence played by religion in political affiliation, ideology, and policy position tends to blur the line between freedom of practice, anti-discrimination laws, and the Constitutional separation of church and state. The case history over issues such as prayer in school, the display of the Ten Commandments at federal buildings, the teaching of evolution in schools, the abortion debate, the subject of LGBTQ+ rights, and the freedoms of practice for marginalized religious groups offers just a glimpse at the countless instances in which the definition and religious freedom have been tested, and continues to be tested. As such, the current state of the debate over religious freedom might be deemed an ongoing legal and cultural tug-of-war.

A Quick Overview of Our Method

Our goal in presenting subjects that generate controversy is to provide you with a sense of some of the figures both past and present who have driven debate, produced widely-recognized works of research, literature or art, proliferated their ideas widely, or who are identified directly and publicly with some aspect of this debate. By identifying the researchers, activists, journalists, educators, academics, and other individuals connected with this debate—and by taking a closer look at their work and contributions—we can get a clear but nuanced look at the subject matter. Rather than framing the issue as one side versus the other, we bring various dimensions of the issue into discussion with one another. This will likely include dimensions of the debate that resonate with you, some dimensions that you find repulsive, and some dimensions that might simply reveal a perspective you hadn’t previously considered.

On the subject of religious freedom, this requires us to consider key issue-related terms including “religious freedom,” “religious liberty,” and “separation of church and state.” We also considered key court rulings and legislative acts that have shaped the public debate, including “Defense of Marriage,” the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” and “Hobby Lobby,” a plaintiff in a recent, high-profile court finding.

Our InfluenceRanking engine gives us the power to scan the academic and public landscape surrounding the religious freedom issue using key terminology to identify consequential influencers. As with any topic that generates public debate and disagreement, this is a subject of great depth and breadth. We do not claim to probe either the bottom of this depth or the borders of this breadth. Instead, we offer you one way to enter into this debate, to identify key players, and through their contributions to the debate, to develop a fuller understanding of the issue and perhaps even a better sense of where you stand.

For a closer look at how our InfluenceRankings work, check out our methodology.

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The Controversial Topics Around Religious Freedom

Otherwise get started with a look at the key words we used to explore this subject:

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Key Terms

Religious Freedom

The defining term of this controversy, “religious freedom” refers to both the Constitutional protection afforded to citizens of the United States and to the global push to secure this freedom for citizens of all nations. The figures identified through the use of this term highlight the activism, policy work, and organization around the defense of religious freedoms, especially as a basic human right.


  • John Van Hanford III was United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom from 2002 to 2009. As ambassador, Hanford led the Office of International Religious Freedom at the United States Department of State.
  • John Langeloth Loeb Jr. is an American businessman, former United States Ambassador to Denmark, and former Delegate to the United Nations. He is an advocate for religious freedom and separation of church and state, having founded the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom in 2009. Loeb continues to serve as chairman of the George Washington Institute.
  • Clifford D. May is an American journalist, editor, political activist, and podcast host. He is the founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a non-partisan policy institute created shortly after the 9/11 attacks, where he hosts the podcast “Foreign Podicy.” He is the weekly “Foreign Desk” columnist for The Washington Times. He previously served as commissioner on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission that makes policy recommendations concerning international religious freedom, as well as the Chairman of the Policy Committee department within the Committee on the Present Danger. May was also previously a weekly columnist for Scripps Howard News Service and National Review Online. May has been widely published, including in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, Commentary, USA Today, and The Atlantic. He has served as a reporter, a foreign correspondent, and a newspaper/magazine editor, working notably for Newsweek in the 1970s and for The New York Times in the 1980s.
  • Eric D. Patterson, Ph.D. is an American political scientist whose work focuses on international relations, just war theory, and the intersection of religion and national security. His advanced degrees are from the University of California, Santa Barbara and the University of Wales at Aberystwyth. He serves as Executive Vice President of the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, DC. Previously he was Dean and Professor of the Robertson School of Government at Regent University and before that he worked at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, & World Affairs. His government experience includes service as an Air National Guard officer, the White House Fellowship, and time as a William C. Foster Fellow working at the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs. His academic articles have appeared in Public Integrity, Journal of Military Ethics, Survival, International Studies Perspectives, International Journal of Religious Freedom, Democracy and Society, Journal of Human Security, International Journal of Applied Philosophy, International Politics, Foreign Policy Journal, International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, Journal of Political Science, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, and Security Studies.

Religious Liberty

While “religious liberty” suggests a definition similar to that of “religious freedom,” this phrasing is also frequently invoked by conservative thinkers, for whom “religious liberty” is seen, particularly, as the liberty to be exempted from certain laws and regulations. This terminology is particularly pertinent in discussions over reproductive rights and LGBTQ+ rights.


  • Steven Gey was an American legal academic and one of the leading US scholars on religious liberties and free speech. He was David and Deborah Fonvielle and Donald and Janet Hinkle Professor at Florida State University College of Law. His scholarship includes Cases and Materials on Religion and the State and dozens of articles on religious liberties, free speech, and constitutional interpretation. Gey was an active participant in national debates regarding the teaching of evolution in public schools and he served as a regular commentator on legal issues for ABC News in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election. In 2007, he received the “Friend of Darwin Award” from the National Center for Science Education, recognizing his tireless advocacy for the teaching of science in schools.
  • Jeffrey Carl Mateer is an American lawyer who currently serves as the First Assistant Attorney General of Texas. In September 2017, he was nominated by President Donald Trump to become a United States District Judge of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas; however, the nomination was withdrawn in December 2017. Mateer previously served as general counsel of the First Liberty Institute, a religious liberty advocacy group headquartered in Plano, Texas.

Separation of Church and State

A core principle of the First Amendment, and a Constitutional clause which has been frequently reinforced through the courts, “separation of church and state” refers to the premise that the freedom of religion includes freedom from the public imposition of another’s religious beliefs. This Constitutional clause has been invoked in many precedent-setting cases throughout history, including those relating to prayer in school, public displays of the Ten Commandments, and more. The figures identified here comprise a mix of religious figures, journalists, and political scientists who have explored the Constitutional implications of this clause.


  • Robert Boston is Senior Adviser for Americans United for Separation of Church and State and Editor of Church & State magazine. He has worked at Americans United since 1987, and formerly served as Assistant Director of Communications and Assistant Editor of Church & State as well as Director of Communications. Boston is an advocate of separation of church and state and has authored four books on the subject. He frequently appears on television and radio. Prominent media appearances include CNN, NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel’s The O’Reilly Factor and MSNBC’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann.
  • For the journalist, see: Barry C. Lynn. Barry W. Lynn was the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State from 1992 to November 2017. He is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and a prominent leader of the religious left in the United States. Lynn was formerly a member of the District of Columbia Bar Association. He is known to be a strong advocate of separation of church and state.
  • Vincent Phillip Muñoz is an American political scientist. He is the Tocqueville Associate Professor of Religion & Public Life in the Department of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of a book on three of the Founding Fathers’ views on the separation of church and state in the United States, and the editor of a second book on Supreme Court cases on religious liberty.

Religious Tolerance

Sometimes held as a counterpoint to the political invocation of “religious liberty” for exemption from anti-discrimination laws, “religious tolerance” speaks to the idea that the practice of one’s own religion should not infringe upon the civil liberties of another. The influencers connected with this term include writers, activists, and spiritual leaders.


  • Dr. B. Jill Carroll is a freelance writer, speaker, scholar, and organizational consultant whose first career was as a university professor specializing in world religions and philosophy of religion. She was the Executive Director of the Boniuk Center for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance at Rice University and an adjunct professor of Religious Studies at the university. She earned her PhD degree there in 1994. She resigned from the directorship in June 2009 stating her intentions to continue writing a blog for the Houston Chronicle entitled “Talking Tolerance” and staying involved in the leadership of the Amazing Faiths Project which she had founded and directed since 2006.
  • Donald Eugene Roulet was a Presbyterian minister, known for involvement in Civil Rights issues within the Presbyterian Church USA. Roulet was a founding member of the Progressive Religion Coalition of Tulsa, an organization that advocates for religious tolerance and inclusion.
  • Karen Barkey is the Haas Distinguished Chair of Religious Diversity at the Othering & Belonging Institute and a Professor of Sociology at University of California, Berkeley. She is also the Director of the Center for the Study of Democracy, Toleration, and Religion at UC Berkeley. She was previously a Professor of Sociology and History at Columbia University. She was awarded the Germaine Tillion Chair of Mediterranean Studies at IMéRA for 2021-2022.

Defense of Marriage

This phrase was chosen because it points to a representative issue in the broader debate over religious liberty. The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was passed in 1996 and defined marriage as being between a man and a woman, and thus barred same-sex marriage at the federal level. It was consequently struck down as unconstitutional by Supreme Court decisions in 2013 and 2015. Its dismissal effectively legalized same-sex marriage, but DOMA proved a pivotal showdown between those who supported the religious freedom to object to same-sex marriage and the anti-discrimination laws which called for an end to the prohibition of same-sex marriage. The figures invoked by this search term include activists on both sides of that debate.


  • Robert H. Knight is an American conservative writer and activist. He was a draftsman of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, that barred federal recognition of same-sex marriage. DOMA was invalidated by the Supreme Court in United States v. Windsor. He is a senior fellow of the American Civil Rights Union and a regular columnist for The Washington Times. He was senior writer for Coral Ridge Ministries and director of the Culture and Media Institute, a project founded in 2006 by the Media Research Center in Alexandria, Virginia. Knight has also served as director of the Culture & Family Institute, an affiliate of Concerned Women for America.
  • Stephen Snyder-Hill is an American soldier, author, lecturer, and LGBT rights activist who served under the United States Army’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy and fought against the Defense of Marriage Act in collaboration with Freedom to Marry and the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. He is author of the book Soldier of Change which covers the media frenzy associated with his activism and his life as gay in the army.
  • Don Korotsky Norte is an American gay rights political activist. He is one half of a Los Angeles gay couple who have been together since meeting in high school in 1978. Don’s initial desire to marry his high school sweetheart made headlines in a 1995 Los Angeles Times article when the couple expressed their desire to hop on a plane to Hawaii and then seek to enforce their marriage rights in California. The Times article was one of the first that documented the rise of Defense of Marriage Act or DOMA a year later. In 2008 The Advocate featured Norte’s marriage to his spouse during the Summer of Love in 2008. Norte and his spouse were both Log Cabin Republicans during the campaign for marriage equality.
  • Mary L. Bonauto is an American lawyer and civil rights advocate who has worked to eradicate discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and has been referred to by US Representative Barney Frank as “our Thurgood Marshall.” She began working with the Massachusetts-based Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, now named LGBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders organization in 1990. A resident of Portland, Maine, Bonauto was one of the leaders who both worked with the Maine legislature to pass a same-sex marriage law and to defend it at the ballot in a narrow loss during the 2009 election campaign. These efforts were successful when, in the 2012 election, Maine voters approved the measure, making it the first state to allow same-sex marriage licenses via ballot vote. Bonauto is best known for being lead counsel in the case Goodridge v. Department of Public Health which made Massachusetts the first state in which same-sex couples could marry in 2004. She is also responsible for leading the first strategic challenges to section three of the Defense of Marriage Act.

Hobby Lobby

A retail company with Christian ownership and identity, Hobby Lobby became the centerpiece for a precedent-setting case. The company, which also supports various evangelical political causes, became a lightning rod in the debate pitting religious freedom vs. anti-discrimination policies when the Supreme Court upheld its religious right to deny employee coverage for certain contraceptive methods. The figures noted here include affiliates with the company and the legal advocates for the Hobby Lobby’s interpretation of religious liberty.


  • Kevin J. “Seamus” Hasson is Founder and President Emeritus of The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a non-profit, public interest law firm that represents persons of all faiths. The Becket Fund is well known for successfully representing the Little Sisters of the Poor in the U.S. Supreme Court. The firm also successfully represented Hobby Lobby in Hobby Lobby v. Burwell, in which the Supreme Court held that protections under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act applied to closely held corporations. The Becket Fund also secured a victory in EEOC v. Hosanna Tabor, which the Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in half a century.”
  • David Green is an American businessman and the founder of Hobby Lobby, a chain of arts and crafts stores. He is a major financial supporter of Evangelical organizations in the United States and funded the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C.
  • Mart Green is the founder and CEO of Mardel Christian & Education and of Every Tribe Every Nation, and an heir to the Hobby Lobby family of companies founded by his father David Green.

Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)

A major piece of legislation passed in 1993, largely as a way to extend certain protections to Native American groups, the RFRA has ultimately become a frequently-invoked standard for an extremely wide spectrum of religious freedom claims. The RFRA has been invoked both in defense of civil rights for marginalized religious groups and has been invoked in defense of religious practices which may otherwise be said to infringe on anti-discrimination laws. The figures identified here point to the invocation of the RFRA on both sides of the debate.


  • Marci Ann Hamilton is the CEO and Academic Director at CHILD USA, an interdisciplinary think tank to prevent child abuse and neglect. She is also a widely regarded scholar in constitutional law and a Fox Family Pavilion Distinguished Scholar in the Fox Leadership Program at the University of Pennsylvania. She is an expert on and advocate for the enforcement of the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution. Hamilton promotes adequate protection for minors, individuals, and landowners who suffer as a result of actions which are claimed to be constitutionally protected on religious grounds. Hamilton is critical of provisions within Federal and State Religious Freedom Restoration Acts.
  • Ginny Ehrhart is an American politician representing the 36th House District in Georgia. Prior to serving in the House, she had worked as a chef and talk show host. Her husband, Earl Ehrhart is the former representative for this district. Ginny announced her candidacy immediately following her husband’s announcement of retirement. She ran against Tom Gray in the Republican primary, winning 51.4% of the vote, and Jen Slipakoff in the general election. She is against gun control, and supports the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. She was criticized in October 2018 for stating that transgender individuals “shouldn’t receive [special rights] whether they identify ‘as a man or a moose’.
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Influential Organizations Involved in the Religious Freedom Controversy

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Religious Freedom Advocates

Advocates for Faith and Freedom

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