Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Enlarging Our Understanding of Institutional Religious Freedom

Stephanie Summers


By Stephanie Summers

November 17, 2014


Recently, I participated in a small meeting with a delegation of evangelical leaders visiting the United States. These leaders represented many of the traditionally marginalized Christian denominations in their nation, which has in recent years undergone substantial changes in the posture of its political leaders towards religious freedom. One facet of this change has been an increase in visa restrictions, such that many foreign nationals who have served alongside nationals in ministry for years will no longer be eligible to return. With significant implications for international ministries and organizations, this change will effectively sideline many of the groups in the country providing the most aid to the poor and marginalized, regardless of the faith commitments, or lack thereof, of the people being served.

Yet when asked directly about this change in their religious freedom landscape, the leaders stated their government’s commitment to religious freedom, telling two stories to support this claim. The first story was brief: “We have great religious freedom. You see, our president doesn’t force us to hire homosexuals.” The second story focused on a council of religious leaders convened by their president that included evangelicals and a Jew for the first time.

This story illustrates two significant errors in our global and domestic conversations about religious freedom that we must take seriously: one of reduction and the other of indifference. 

The first error is that, regrettably, the US conversation about institutional religious freedom has been reduced to a dichotomy between LGBT rights and the rights of faith-based organizations because many of today's religious freedom disputes involve LGBT equality claims against faith-based organizations. However, religious freedom can't be reduced to this dichotomy. There are faith-based organizations supportive of LGBT protections, if designed also to protect religious freedom, and LGBT advocates who don't intend to undermine faith-based organizations. Even in the midst of these conflicts, religious freedom advocates should be sure to address this error by making plain that institutional religious freedom has far more dimensions to it than employment.

Here we must show the extent to which protecting religious freedom ensures the freedoms of minority faith groups and even groups that form associations and say of themselves that they possess no religious beliefs, but are animated by their shared values and principles. We must also make clear that many institutional religious freedom advocates may be quite supportive of protecting LGBT persons from workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, provided that there are also protections in place for religious organizations to employ those who share the belief and conduct commitments of the religious organization.

This is where we encounter the second error regarding religious freedom. The leaders I met demonstrated indifference towards the religious freedom of others. They interpreted the experience of their own groups, now close to the structures of political power, as an indication of a strengthened national commitment to religious freedom. In their case, the increasing limitations of religious freedom for their brothers and sisters from other nations, as well as those of religious traditions within their own political community not considered to be majorities, is not relevant to their assessment of their national religious freedom climate. They failed to recognize and affirm that religious freedom is not about protecting one’s own group, but is about protecting this freedom for all individuals and institutions within a political community – even those with whom they have deep disagreement.

In the United States, this error of indifference is even more entrenched than the error of reduction. The disputed issue of religious criteria in employment illustrates the problem of the common indifference to the religious freedom rights of others. Often, protecting the religious freedom of one group is met with challenges from other groups for whom that particular freedom is deemed unnecessary. An example of religious freedom protections regarding employment can bring clarity here.

The Title VII protections included in the Civil Rights Act protects religious groups that do not support the leadership of women in executive roles from having to hire me. Many religious organizations, including my current and former employers, do not view themselves as needing such a protection spelled out in law. But to say that such a protection is not needed because they themselves do not need it would be indifferent to those religious organizations holding different theological convictions.  I humbly say that while I deeply disagree with theological convictions that bar me from leadership in many organizations, I will continue to promote religious freedom protections in law that will support these organizations to hold and act upon different convictions than mine.

Reducing all religious freedom questions to a false dichotomy and accepting religious freedom for one’s own group without attending to those of different convictions is to disregard the true diversity which exists among religious organizations.  Let our growing awareness of the twin errors of reduction and indifference help us articulate and bring more clarity to the present discussions of law and policy.


-Stephanie Summers is Chief Executive Officer at the Center for Public Justice.

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