Lately the news has been filled with mentions of religious freedom, how it should be applied, and what, if any, limits it must observe. The Supreme Court recently ruled on two cases involving the religiously motivated decisions of individuals. First, in Groff v. DeJoy, Postmaster General the Court held, unanimously, that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees’ religious observance as long as those accommodations do not present an undue burden for the employer. While Groff involved a Christian who requested to not work on Sunday, the ruling can be applied to religious minorities who may need accommodations to practice their faith. Remember, our national, academic, and even business calendars are still oriented to a distinctively Christian perspective where time off for Christmas and Easter are still better accommodated than Yom Kippur or Eid al-Adha, to name only two. The second ruling, 303 Creative et al. v. Elenis et al., involved a web designer who worried that an anti-discrimination law in Colorado would compel her to create websites for functions that contradict her understanding of Biblical truth, namely same-gender weddings. Setting aside that 303 Creative was largely based on hypotheticals and a dubious request for a website which apparently came from a straight man, the case allows artists and other professionals to deny service to clients if that service would violate the professional’s religious convictions. Web designs and the ubiquitous wedding cakes might seem relatively trivial, this ruling can be taken further to include health professionals denying care to Queer people and public safety professionals refusing to intervene in crimes.
Religious freedom is an American value or, so we were taught in school. Didn’t the Puritans leave England seeking the freedom to practice their religion without harassment? What we are often not taught is the significant difference between religious freedom and the freedom to practice our religion. The former is a universal concept respecting the practice of any religion or no religion in any manner which is consensual and not dangerous. The latter guarantees freedom of practice to only one group or one religion while holding other religions suspect. The Puritans did not leave England seeking to establish a society in which people could practice any religion, their city on a hill was to be theocracy of their particular flavor of Christianity and none other. Religious freedom is liberatory and collective because it shares with each person including those who utilize the freedom to practice no religion. But because religious freedom is communal it must be practiced with respect to the freedom of others.
You and I have the freedom to believe whatever we are compelled to believe. To the degree that the practice of our religion and spirituality is consensual for everyone involved and does no harm to anyone not participating in our practice, then we have the freedom to practice our faith as we see fit. It is when our faith becomes destructive to others that we have reached the limits of religious freedom. Queer Christians often find this limit when churches and other groups attempt to enforce lifelong chastity on them. While I disagree with the belief and the arguments used to reach it, a Queer Christian is within their rights to believe that God requires celibacy from them. They violate religious freedom when they impose that belief on others. So, Groff, requesting Sundays off work in order to participate in a religious observance, is a fair example of religious freedom. So too 303 Creative is an example of the limit.
One would be forgiven for mistaking this as simply an intellectual and legal debate. Just as the decision in Groff opens space for religious minorities, the 303 Creative decision presents new challenges for LGBTQIA+ people. Though finding a web designer is a relatively easy prospect even if more designers begin to discriminate against LGBTQIA+ people, the same cannot be said for providers of physical goods—cake designers for instance—or health care practitioners. For Queer people with limited socioeconomic statuses or who live in rural areas the challenge of finding a Queer affirming provider is often even more difficult. We need to remember for Queer people as well as others, the issue of religious freedom is not conceptual, it is grounded in lived experience and fear of being embarrassed and denied services to which we have a right.
Writing for Baptist News Global, Barry Howard developed “Seven Reasons Religious Liberty Matters.” While Howard perhaps reads the current state of religious freedom through rose-colored glasses, he makes a convincing point that religious liberty helps to ensure not only the free practice of religion and ethical living, but the expansion of social justice and the limiting of extremism. Indeed, appeals to religious belief is not just a tactic of the religious right and Christian nationalism, progressive Christians, too, can convincingly argue for their right to practice a liberal religion. In 2014, the United Church of Christ sued the State of North Carolina over a proposed amendment to the state’s constitution defining marriage between one man and one woman.
Though the 303 Creative ruling was a major blow to LGBTQIA+ rights, it is also prophetic of the work we still have to do through progressive, inclusive, and affirming Christianity where the words and the model of Jesus propel our actions and our witness for justice. If the freedom of religion can be weaponized against God’s people, then the freedom of religion can testify until even the rocks cry out.
Author Bio: Dr. Ben Huelskamp is the Executive Director of LOVEboldly (www.loveboldly.net), an organization working to create spaces where LGBTQIA+ people can flourish in Christianity, and a seminarian at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio. You can find out more about his projects on his website (www.benhuelskamp.com).