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Heretic on the Hill: Defining Religious Freedom Down

Senator Daniel Moynihan once wrote a scholarly paper in his spare time, the kind most Senators just don’t write, called “Defining Deviancy Down.” He was using the sociologist’s meaning of deviancy: different from societal norms. His point was that the nation had become so accustomed to gun violence that what was once front page news now doesn’t even get a mention. We just lower expectations while the problem keeps growing. The title caught on and has been reappropriated for various other issues


So let’s talk about defining religious freedom down. Until recently religious freedom has meant freedom to choose your religion or to abstain, and freedom from having a religion imposed on you. It’s the religious freedom James Madison had in mind when he wrote the First Amendment. (Hat tip to Thomas Jefferson as well) Now a second meaning of the exact same phrase has entered the discussion; freedom to discriminate because of your religious beliefs. There are those who say a law requiring them to, for example, bake a cake for a gay wedding violates their religious freedom because doing so goes against their religious beliefs. And you see it in  headlines like this: “A Kansas teacher is suing school officials for requiring her to address students by their preferred names, saying the policy violates her religious freedom.” 


This is certainly not the first time a word or phrase has been redefined by one side of an issue to get an advantage. However, it’s difficult to discuss something this important when you can’t even agree on the definitions. People are really talking about two different things. Essentially it’s the conflict between the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” and the Free Exercise Clause: “…or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” There will be conflicts between the two and that is what the courts are for. But outside of court how can we even have a discussion about religious freedom when we can’t agree on what religious freedom means? 


Here’s an idea. When we are talking about Establishment Clause religious freedom, we call it religious freedom. When we are talking about the Free Exercise version, we call it religious liberty.


“I don’t have to bake that cake. You’re violating my religious freedom.” 

“No, that’s your religious liberty, and we’ll see which the court thinks is more important.” 

Or this: “Kansas teacher says school policy violates her religious liberty.”

On the other hand, “Senator, passing a bill that establishes a National Hymn would violate religious freedom!” 


Much clearer, right? Now we can talk.




  • I’m not spending all my time lately improving the public discourse. I’ve been in several meetings along with staff from other Secular Coalition member organizations with Capitol Hill staff about ways to address the problems of politics in churches and the growth of Christian Nationalism. It’s very early in a process that will take all year but we’re optimistic about these goals. More details as the process unfolds.  
  • SCA also joined an amicus brief in support of the Bremerton School District in Kennedy v. Bremerton, which is before the Supreme Court. The case will decide whether a high school football coach can pray with players on the field after a football game, or whether the school district had the right not to renew his contract over this. We joined coalition members the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the Center for Inquiry, and the American Humanist Association as amici curiae. Thanks to FFRF for taking the lead on this. 
  • This year’s Secular Week of Action starts April 29th. Coordinated by the Foundation Beyond Belief, the event harnesses the secular movement’s commitment to making the world a better place by organizing service events. Learn more and find an event near you. 


And remember these words of wisdom originally from Senator Moynihan: We’re entitled to our own opinions but not our own facts!


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