In a rare instance of bipartisan consensus-building in Congress, the U.S. Senate voted to advance toward passage of legislation codifying federal recognition of same-sex marriage after agreeing to add religious freedom protections to the bill. It is emblematic of the power of religious freedom to unite and overcome polarization that progress on marriage equality legislation was made possible only by an agreement to protect religious freedom.
Speaking recently at an event hosted by the Brigham Young University International Center for Law and Religion Studies (ICLRS) and Sutherland Institute, Thomas Griffith — a former federal appeals court judge and a Utahn — noted that the root of the word religion means “to bind together” or unite. Some people choose to abuse religion and religious freedom by mutating it into something divisive and polarizing. But as Griffith and the agreement around the Respect for Marriage Act suggest, religious freedom is something that can bring everyone together and redeem our polarized politics.
Some argue that religious freedom has no value to those who don’t believe in God or who are agnostic toward religion. At the same event where Griffith spoke, BYU law professor Elizabeth Clark said, “Religious freedom opens a space where people can make choices about things that are very dear to their heart — very close to their identity. And that includes people who choose not to believe or who are agnostic.”
When we restrict religious expression in public, we are also restricting the space in which atheists can express their nonbelief about God. Atheists and those who are agnostic need religious freedom.
Some argue that religious freedom harms the LGBTQ community. However, 60% of LGBTQ Americans are people of faith, according to the Rev. Marian Edmonds-Allen, an LGBTQ community leader who spoke at the BYU ICLRS-Sutherland event. She related a story about a young member of the LGBTQ community who met with her U.S. senator to discuss the need for federal protection of both religious freedom and LGBTQ civil rights.
After this young woman shared her own experience with housing discrimination, she told the senator that her parents were active members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Her strong belief was that “their religious freedom is just as important to me as my own civil rights. We need to protect both.” The LGBTQ community needs religious freedom.
Rarely do we recognize that religious freedom helped lay the foundation of many civil rights that all Americans enjoy. Some of the court cases that were foundational to our present freedoms to express our opinions (especially unpopular opinions) and associate with others stemmed from religious individuals or organizations seeking those rights to express their faith. Those who cherish their rights to speak and interact freely with others – regardless of religious affiliation – need religious freedom.
As then-state Sen. Barack Obama recognized in his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, when the civil liberties of Americans anywhere are undermined, it threatens our civil liberties. The opposite is also true: As civil liberties anywhere expand, civil liberties everywhere expand. As we better protect religious freedom, the civil rights of atheists, LGBTQ individuals and Americans everywhere are made more secure.
As human beings, we share a desire to discover truth for ourselves and seek the freedom to live by the truths we discover. Religious freedom gives all of us the space to personally search for truth and live by it – right or wrong. That is what makes religious freedom good for everyone, and it is why religious freedom can unite our polarized and divided nation.
The religious freedom agreement that made progress on the Respect for Marriage Act possible is a recognition of the power of religious freedom to unite people, transcend polarization and serve the common good of all Americans. If we embrace that power in our policymaking and our debates, we can heal our divides and restore a functional politics to our nation.
Derek Monson is vice president of policy at Sutherland Institute, a nonpartisan public policy think tank in Salt Lake City.