JGJPP - Defending Religious Liberty Against All Enemies, Foreign and Domestic

When we think of serious threats to religious liberty, our minds naturally turn to the Middle East, Africa, and other foreign lands. They don’t primarily turn to the United States. Yet while circumstances are different and the threats are of higher magnitude overseas, it is important to remember that we are ultimately protecting and defending the same right to religious liberty—whether the battle is foreign or domestic.

Internationally, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“UDHR”) describes religious liberty protections as follows: “[e]veryone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”[1] This right is similarly described in the legally binding International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (“ICCPR”), which provides that “[e]veryone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”[2] The ICCPR also provides that “[n]o one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.”[3]

Domestically, religious freedom also means more than just the right to hold certain beliefs. Statutory protections meant to bolster the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause explicitly protect a “religious exercise” defined as “any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.”[4] The Supreme Court recently affirmed the idea that “Free exercise . . . implicates more than just freedom of belief. It means . . . the right to express those beliefs and to establish one’s religious . . . self-definition in the political, civic, and economic life of our larger community.”[5] Well-developed case law supports this view.

Whether foreign or domestic, religious liberty includes the legal right to do more than merely hold certain beliefs or possess an identity. It means the ability to live out and act on those beliefs, manifesting them in various ways as they shape our humanity.

Yet this manifestation of religious exercise is being threatened—both overseas and at home. In foreign lands, opponents of religious liberty want to minimize the right described in the UHDR and ICCPR in the name of anti-conversion laws. Thus, there is “freedom of worship” but no freedom of religion, for if people changed their religion that would constitute “blasphemy.”

Domestically, the robust practice of faith is threatened by the HHS “accommodation” forced upon charities and others under the Affordable Care Act. Religious individuals running certain nonprofits have objections to being forced to be complicit in the provision of drugs and services which they believe cause abortions and end human life. Yet the federal government has sought to involve them in this process anyway, dismissing their conscience objections.

This “accommodation” issue, as is true of blasphemy laws and “freedom of worship” overseas, are ultimately battles not over whether “freedom of religion” must exist—but over what it means. Not many are arguing at this point that freedom of religion is nonexistent. They just don’t want it to interfere with what they perceive as their rights, and want to define it on their own terms. The above are only several examples meant to highlight a larger problem—the ongoing attempts to reduce the contours and chip away at the definition of the free exercise right. We must be on the lookout for all threats to this right which diminish it from its true, full, and robust form—whether foreign or domestic.

Travis Weber, Esq., is Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at the Family Research Council. Before joining FRC, Travis worked in private practice, primarily litigating federal civil rights cases, and handling military and criminal defense matters. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and former Navy pilot, Travis holds a J.D. from Regent University School of Law, where he served as the Notes & Comments Editor on Law Review. Travis also graduated with an LL.M. in International Law (with distinction) and a Certificate in International Human Rights Law from Georgetown University Law Center.



[1] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, G.A. Res. 217A, art. 18, U.N. GAOR, 3d Sess., 1st plen. mtg., U.N. Doc. A/810 (Dec. 12, 1948) [hereinafter UDHR] (emphasis added).
[2] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, G.A. res. 2200A (XXI), art. 18, 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 52, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force Mar. 23, 1976 [hereinafter ICCPR] (emphasis added).
[3] Id. (emphasis added).
[4] 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-5 (emphasis added).
[5] Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, 134 S. Ct. 2751, 2785 (2014) (internal citation omitted) (emphasis added).

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