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The Iona Blog

Is religious freedom only freedom of worship?

Author: Tom O'Gorman
Date: 24th April 2012

Religious freedom is one of the concepts which underpins most modern democracies. Most significant international human rights documents guarantee religious freedom. And most people when you ask them say they are in favour of religious freedom.

But what exactly do we mean when we talk about “freedom of religion”? Increasingly, secularists are attempting (and succeeding) to redefine freedom of religion as simply “freedom of worship”.

In this piece for US website, the Christian Post, David Cortman of the Alliance Defence Fund, which defends religious freedom outlines exactly why this redefinition is very ominious for religious freedom properly understood.

He asks: “[W]hen people....replace the words "freedom of religion" with "freedom of worship," is it just a distinction without a difference, or is it a major change about which we need to be concerned?”

“In order to explain what amounts to tremendous differences between the two phrases, let me offer a recent example. In Colorado, a religious freedom amendment to the state constitution has been proposed that prohibits the government from 'burden[ing] a person's or religious organisation's freedom of religion' unless it shows a compelling interest – which offers the highest level of protection.

“Compare that to the proposed language submitted by a far-left group which begins: 'Religious freedom. The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination, shall forever hereafter be guaranteed.'

“Sounds okay, doesn't it? Or does it? Did you notice that freedom of religion quickly became religious worship? But there is more:

'In assessing whether government has burdened freedom of religion, a person's or a religious organisation's right to act in a manner motivated by a sincerely held religious belief is the ability to engage in religious practices in the privacy of a person's home or in the privacy of a religious organisation's established place of worship.'”

What this amounts to is the privatisation of religion, the banishment of religion from the public square. It is the same mentality which would withdraw State funding from denominational schools or would all but prevent them from being denominational in any meaningful way, and which believes (like our former Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern) that religion “clouds our judgement”.

Cortman continues: “Freedom of religion encompasses many beliefs and actions, obviously including worship. But this rhetorical shift of limiting freedom of religion to only worship embodies a dangerous ideology that is shared by the current administration.

“Ironically, the former Soviet Union – a self described atheistic country – allowed 'freedom of worship' but not 'freedom of religion'.

Cortman outlines a number of examples of how President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have used the same 'freedom of worship' rhetoric, and some concrete examples of how they have showed a disdain for the freedom of religion, such as

  • Requiring religious organisations to provide abortion-inducing drugs and contraceptives free of charge.
  • Requiring individuals to pay a surcharge to fund abortions.
  • Overturning HHS protections for religious health care workers not to be forced to participate in abortions.
  • Appointing radical activist Chai Feldblum as a commissioner to a Government equality body-who recently stated that when religious liberty and sexual liberty conflict, she has "a hard time coming up with any case in which religious liberty should win."
  • Refusing to enforce the Defence of Marriage Act.
  • Removing non-profit work that relates to "religious instruction" from the student loan forgiveness programme.
  • Arguing recently at the Supreme Court that the government can interfere with the internal operations of religious organisations.

Religious freedom is about far more than religious worship and private devotion. Religion, for people of faith, animates both the public and private life. Laws which fail to acknowledge this aspect of religion don't respect religious freedom.


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