‘Religious liberty’ and the Constitution

Religious liberty is commonly cited as the reasoning behind the opinions of pro-lifers and anti-LGBTQ groups. The idea is that the constitution guarantees the freedom to express one’s religion. Abortions and LGBTQ couples are essentially sinful, thus laws protecting these are infringing on religious expression, therefore laws protecting said practices are unconstitutional. But what does “religious freedom” really entail? The First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The amendment is to prevent two things: a state-backed religion and religious discrimination. However, the manner in which the religious freedom argument is invoked contradicts the First Amendment.

Religion seems to be primarily concerned with two things: making metaphysical claims and prescribing ethical codes based on said claims. The goal is that, if the ethical codes are followed on earth, then there will be a utopia and a good afterlife. The First Amendment appears to be relating to the second concern as the ethical systems affect people’s lives. The First Amendment thus guarantees that one can follow the ethical systems of their religion and that the state will not endorse the ethical system of any specific religion.

The religious freedom argument first and foremost asserts that other people follow the ethical systems of one’s religion. For a Christian baker to deny a wedding cake to the a gay couple enforces an interpretation of the Christian ethical system onto the couple, implying that if the couple were to abandon their “sinful” practice then they would be served. The same is true for abortion. The essential point of the religious freedom argument is a demand that others comply with the ethical system of religion, and the demand is often constituted as denied service, gay-conversion camps, attacking planned parenthood, etc. For the state to choose this “religious freedom” would be for the state to endorse the ethical systems of a single religion, giving authority of practitioners to force others to comply, and in essence, creating a state-sponsored religion, contradicting the First Amendment. Sure, LGBTQ couples can get a different wedding cake, but the harm allowed by “religious freedom” can be significant in gay conversion, and the laws restricting parenthood and reproductive rights explicitly force women to comply with an ethical system they may not believe in.

The religious freedom argument seems to force others to comply with one specific religion’s ethical system. Such an idea can lead to an unconstitutional practice. But isn’t the point of an ethical system to make others act ethically? Though ethical systems make such recommendations, legislation should be free of religion entirely.

To tie together legislation and religion makes laws above criticism because they come from a God, which can be compromising for democracy, and makes laws subject to the widely varied interpretations of hundreds or thousands of years old second-hand accounts, which is a vacuous and contentious base for legislation.

Carl Teegerstrom is a sophomore philosophy major with a minor in mathematics.