Religious Freedom ain't what it used to be

By Eric Cherry

Celebrate Religious Freedom Day this week, andkeep in mind that "Religious Freedom" ain’t what it used to be.

Yes, the historic meaning it typically brings to mind for religious liberals continues to be relevant in present day struggles: freedom of conscience in religious matters and protection to freely exercise one’s religious practices are two struggles that still need attention. This is especially true for individuals and communities that are truly marginalized and suffer from bias and oppression.

But, even as religious liberals maintain the importance of what we understand by “religious freedom,” since the 1990s “Religious Freedom Restoration Acts” on both federal and state levels have used Religious Freedom language as cover for discrimination based on religious bias. Furthermore, it has repeatedly been used as a cudgel against the separation of church and state. The term has been co-opted to support hateful religious ideas held by people with power and privilege.

Perhaps most recently, in 2015 as governor of Indiana, current U.S. Vice President-elect Mike Pence gained national attention by supporting and signing SB 101 – the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (Indiana). The law extended protection of religious bias for the first time to for-profit institutions using the language of religious freedom. According to the Indianapolis Star, one of the champions of the new law was notable for “saying [it] would protect florists and bakers who wish to decline to service gay weddings.”

Language and meaning change. And, for those of us who care about freedom of conscience, free exercise of religion, and justice, it is important to be aware of what “Religious Freedom” language signals when we use it.

The Day of Religious Freedom on January 13, 2017, is the 449th anniversary of the Proclamation of the Edict of Torda - a seminal event in protecting religious liberty and freedom. We can celebrate it proudly and profoundly. And, as we do, we can also recognize the changing meaning of “Religious Freedom” language for many people. My prayer is that we will take that understanding and be led towards committed involvement in resistance movements that confront hate, bias, and injustice in the name of so-called “religious freedom.”

About the Author

Eric Cherry

Eric was the Director of the UUA’s International Office since August 2007. Prior to this Eric served for 12 years as a parish minister with UU congregations in Burlington, Iowa and N. Easton, Massachusetts. Eric has long been involved in the UU Partner Church movement, serving as the English...


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