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

Why Freedom of Religion?

Stanley Carlson-Thies


September 2, 2011
by Stanley Carlson-Thies

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . .”  These are the very first words of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, coming even before the phrases setting out our freedom of speech, the freedom to assemble peaceably, and the freedom to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” 

Religious freedom is the first right, the first freedom, in the Bill of Rights—the set of ten amendments that set out the limits on the power of government.  There can be in our nation no required religion, no state church.  The government may not impose on us an official religious (or irreligious) doctrine.  Instead, it must protect the “free exercise” of religion.

What is that free exercise of religion and why should it be protected?  Religious freedom, at a minimum, protects the right of people to worship on their own and with others and to believe in God—or some other ultimate truth—as their heart, head, and conscience impels them.  And yet religious freedom does, and must, protect beyond convictions, private worship, and houses of worship.

For religion is not a matter only of inner belief, religious ritual, and institutions to propagate the faith, as important as all of these are.  It is a matter of right living—living life in the world as required by one’s deepest convictions about what is right.  Thus religious freedom must protect not only the communication of religious truth but also the care of physical and psychological needs.  Religious freedom must protect parachurch organizations—faith-based non-profits and other institutions—as well as churches, for it is often through parachurch organizations such as religious charities, schools, and hospitals that people of faith put their convictions into action in the world.

And yet understanding religious freedom broadly—beyond churches to parachurch organizations, beyond private conviction to public action, beyond evangelism to faith-shaped services—does pose a problem.  Our nation is characterized by multiple and robust different religions and secular philosophies of life.  How can they all, with their differing, sometimes even clashing, directions, guide citizens and organizations?  Indeed, government must set out common standards that enable diverse people and organizations to live together peaceably and well. 

However, in setting out those common standards and working to promote the common good, government should be maximally protective of a robust and far-ranging religious freedom. Instead, most of the time, US citizens, courts, and policymakers have been content with a government that imposes sweeping uniform requirements on the society, with only narrow and grudging exemptions when persons or faith-based organizations argue a deep objection of religion or conscience.  It is as if what is right is blindingly obvious and those seeking relief are plainly misguided, albeit they must be given some freedom.

But our diverse religions and philosophies disagree about what is right, what is obvious.    Genuinely protecting religious exercise requires something more than the grudging concession of narrow exemptions.  It requires a different attitude and different policies.  Rather than uniformity with exceptions, the political philosophy should be principled pluralism:  the forthright acceptance of the multiple confessions that animate citizens and their institutions. 

And the policy ought to be sphere sovereignty:  the government’s laws and funding practices that respect and support multiple ways for the public to be served and the common good to be implemented.  For example, in education:  full school choice that uses government resources to support the diverse kinds of schools that parents respect; in social services, a level playing field that enables faith-based organizations along with secular groups to use government funds to help the needy.

As the Center for Public Justice Political Community Guideline puts it:  “A sound and healthy republic is one in which government recognizes and protects by law the independent, non-political responsibilities that belong to the people—rather than trying to direct the exercise of all responsibilities and to satisfy all needs.”

—Stanley Carlson-Thies is president and founder of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance and a fellow of the Center for Public Justice. He served on the church-state task force of President Obama's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and on the founding staff of President George W. Bush's White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

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