The Hidden Debate: Free Exercise of Religion

by Matthew Raley

Several issues provoke heated claims about religion’s placein society—gay marriage, the Obama administration’s contraception mandate, and the status of organizations like InterVarsity at state universities.

There is a debate going on in the background of these issues. The hidden debate is about whether we should change the American model of religious pluralism in a secular state.

Our model for a secular state developed from thinkers like John Locke, who described a free society in which every kind of question is open for debate in public life. The colonies became a lab for this kind of society. They were theologically diverse. Quakers founded Pennsylvania, while the Puritans settled in Massachusetts. Virginia was Episcopalian, while Maryland was Catholic. This diversity required a guarantee of the free exercise of religion for the Constitution to be ratified.

No one wanted the federal government regulating people’s consciences in public life.

The French observer Alexis de Tocqueville described the vitality of our secular model in the 1830s. Volunteer religious organizations flourished everywhere. People were free to band together publicly and accomplish whatever their communities needed.

Tocqueville thought this was remarkable because he’d experienced the other secular model. In France, the revolution of 1789 had adopted the goals of Enlightenment rationalism, and the new state regulated society accordingly. The enforcement was terroristic, with massacres of priests and nuns and seizures of churches. (Later regimes softened but did not reverse this form of secularism.)

The French model is democratic today. It allows religious pluralism, but only within a strict separation of public and private. You may be a Muslim, for example, in your home. But at work or school, you must conform to the state’s secular code.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that Abercrombie and Fitch could not refuse a Muslim job applicant because of her headscarf is the American model in action. In France, such discrimination is national policy. Leave your spirituality at the mosque.

When we read about commissions fining bakers and photographers for refusing to participate in same-sex weddings, we should ask deeper questions. The activists who want these punitive measures are not totalitarians. But they are playing a game with everyone’s freedom. They are leveraging civil rights precedents against the First Amendment, seeking to restrict religious freedom to private spaces alone. They call this “freedom of worship,” but it is a big change in the American compact.

These activists need to explain why everyone should surrender the free exercise of religion. The line of power-grabbers waiting to control our public spaces has always been long.