Beyond Birth Control, Baking, and Bathrooms: The Vision of Religious Freedom that Millennials Need

A version of this article originally appeared on the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance's website.

Pew recently surveyed Americans about their stances and sympathies regarding some of the emerging challenges between religious freedom and reproductive and LGBT nondiscrimination. Among Americans aged 18-29, 75% responded that employers should be mandated to provide contraceptive coverage in health insurance plans, and only 23% believed the employers should have the freedom to decline providing such services. Moreover, only 20% of this category of young Americans was able to sympathize some or a lot with both sides of this issue.

These young Americans were also asked: “If you had to choose, which comes closest to your view? Business owners with religious objections to homosexuality should be:  required to provide services OR able to refuse services to same-sex couples.” 59% of young Americans responded that wedding vendors should be required to provide services for same-sex wedding despite religious objections, while 39% believed business owners should be able to refuse wedding services for same-sex couples. And only 17% of 18-29 year olds sympathized some or a lot with both sides.

Pew also asked young Americans whether transgender individuals should be required to use the bathroom of their biological sex or whether they should be able to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify now.  A full 67% of Americans aged 18-29 believed transgender persons should be able to use the bathroom that corresponds to their current gender identity while 32% believed they should use the public restrooms of their gender at birth, and only 19% sympathized significantly with both sides.

While the youngest generation of American adults tends to be more favorable than older Americans to freedoms related to sexual and gender identity on all of these issues, this trend is extremely pronounced with respect to transgender persons and public bathrooms. As Pew notes, while two-thirds of young Americans support transgender people using the bathroom of their current gender identity, “Adults in their 40s and 50s are split evenly on this question, while the prevailing opinion of adults over 50 is that transgender adults should use restrooms corresponding to their birth gender.” Additionally, American adults under 30 are more likely to know someone who is transgender (37%) than adults in aged 30-64 (32%) and far more likely than adults over 65 (16%).

The wholeness and fruitfulness of religious freedom is not encapsulated in birth control, bakers, and bathrooms alone.

The Pew survey confirms a trend that many see in their everyday lives: American adults under 30 prevailingly favor the claims on society being made by sexual minorities over the claims on society being made by religious minorities. Yet few are presenting the youngest generation of American adults with any alternative approaches for considering the challenges of advancing the freedoms of people and institutions who very strongly disagree in a pluralist public square. Even this Pew data, which sheds much needed light on the perceptions of young Americans on these issues, only asks the same questions common in public conversations and social media. When young Americans keep hearing about religious freedom only in the context of “birth control, baking, and bathrooms,” that binary choice becomes their only perception of what religious freedom might mean.

Yet religious freedom has the capacity to provide innovative, “both/and” solutions in public policy through unexpected partnerships and by reframing the meta-narrative of faith’s impact in public life. Alas: from Saturday Night Live skits to the US Commission on Civil Right’s recent report, millennials are constantly confronted with oversimplified and, frankly, false information about what religious freedom could and should mean in contemporary American life. Yet the wholeness and fruitfulness of religious freedom is not encapsulated in birth control, bakers and bathrooms alone. However important these issues are, they fail to tell the whole story of what religious freedom contributes today to our diverse American society.

What would have happened if Pew had asked about young Americans’ perceptions of how religious freedom has sustained the capacity of thousands of churches and faith organizations around the country to continue to serve refugees from the Middle East? How would young adults have responded to a question asking them whether faith-based organizations should be allowed to employ people who could live out the mission of their employer, similarly to how PETA and Planned Parenthood are not required to hire meat eaters or pro-lifers?

What would American adults under 30 say if they were asked whether faith-based humanitarian organizations should continue to be allowed to partner with the Obama administration to serve orphans, combat human trafficking, and provide disaster relief? What would American young adults think of an innovative public policy solution that both protected LGBT people from discrimination and protected the religious identity of faith-based nonprofits? How would young adults respond to an approach that both guaranteed all eligible women received free reproductive care and found an alternative way to provide such coverage without mandating religious organizations who objected on religious grounds provide it?

Innovative solutions to the “birth control, bakers and bathrooms” questions are possible and in fact they are already happening. For example, in May the Supreme Court acknowledged that the government could achieve its aims of providing women with free contraceptive care without requiring that faith-based nonprofits violate their deeply held religious precepts. In its decision, the Court stated that the two sides “should be afforded an opportunity to arrive at an approach going forward that accommodates petitioners’ religious exercise while at the same time ensuring that women covered by petitioners’ health plans “receive full and equal health coverage, including contraceptive coverage.” Note the “both/and” approach taken in the Supreme Court’s decision.

This same spirit was seen in last year’s Utah legislation protecting both LGBT people from discrimination in housing and employment and providing religious organizations with robust protections. Religious freedom scholar Doug Laycock explained the “both/and” approach regarding LGBT nondiscrimination and religious freedom this way: “Both sexual minorities and religious minorities make essentially parallel claims on the larger society. Both sexual orientation and religious faith, and the conduct that follows from each, are fundamental to human identity…The American solution to this conflict is to protect the liberty of both sides.”

Beyond the birth control, bakers, and bathrooms, there are other important questions to ask.  How does protecting the capacity of faith-based nonprofits to serve their neighbor out of deep spiritual conviction contribute to the flourishing of civil society and human life?  How does religious freedom for faith-based organizations promote a diversity of options in a pluralist public square?  How does advocating for religious freedom for faith-based nonprofits advance their work to empower returning citizensadvocate against payday lendingalleviate poverty through micro-financeset the industry standard for paid family leave, and promote environmental stewardship?

Millennials are the next generation, but they are also the current generation. They make up growing percentages of the American workforce every year and are rising in positions of leadership and influence in their jobs, volunteer commitments, churches, and communities.  Adults under 35 make up a large share of the American electorate and continue to drive popular opinion and popular culture. How can we reframe religious freedom positively for America’s young adults of all faiths or none? How do we show that religious freedom is not a never-ending, winner-take-all battle? Is this an effort worth pursuing?

What are your questions, thoughts or concerns? Please email or comment below.

-Chelsea Langston Bombino is the Director of Equipping and Membership for the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance at the Center for Public Justice