On its surface, the controversy over religious freedom in the U.S. 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.
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, the battle over religious freedom in the United States has been complicated by several distinct dimensions, including:
While all three of these dimensions figure prominently into the ongoing debate over religious freedom, it is arguably the third of these that elevates religious freedom as a top controversy 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 controversy, 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.
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.
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 History.com, 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 history.com “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.”
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 history.com, “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…
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
|4||World Christian Encyclopedia|
|9||Why I am Not a Muslim|
|10||This Present Darkness|
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.
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.
Otherwise get started with a look at the key words we used to explore this subject:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you would like to study this topic in more depth, check out these key organizations...
Interested in building toward a career on the front lines of the religious freedom debate? As you can see, there are many different avenues into this far-reaching issue. Use our Custom College Ranking to find:
Interested in diving into another one of our controversial topics? Check out The 25 Most Controversial Topics Today!Photo by Kai Pilger on Unsplash
Want to be an Academic Influence Insider?