How to Get Religious Freedom Out of Scare Quotes

Religious freedom isn’t having a great year.  In the recent article “Does ‘Religious Freedom’ Deserve Scare Quotes?”, Sunnive Brydum captures the essence of the painful, but authentic, sentiments felt by an increasing number of Americans: religious freedom as a concept has shifted in recent years from protecting the beliefs and practices of all faith paradigms to privileging orthodox Judeo-Christian sexual ethics. Brydum argues: “Placing a legitimate phrase or concept in quotes is the textual equivalent of adding air quotes and rolling one’s eyes…But the cold, hard truth is that sometimes scare quotes are warranted. Particularly…around phrases that have been co-opted to serve as an ideological bludgeon—as is so often the case with complaints about violations of religious liberty.”

Whether or not you agree with Brydum’s assessment of the state of religious freedom today, it is important to recognize that her view is a common one. And religious freedom advocates with orthodox sexual ethics should take responsibility for their role in creating this perception. Many now do see proponents of “religious freedom” (in scare quotes) as self-interested, only advocating for their own freedom to practice their faith. How can those of us who care about advancing a vision of religious freedom that loves our very different neighbor as ourselves begin to reframe religious freedom in a positive way? Any approach must take into account three distinct, but overlapping areas:

Public Policy:

Religious freedom advocates championing certain pieces of legislation that are labeled as “religious freedom” measures should carefully consider the language of the bill itself, asking not just how the legislation would protect their capacity to continue to practice their own faith, but how it would protect others of different faiths and animating belief systems to continue to live out their most core beliefs about how to be in this world.  In our increasingly diverse and polarized public square, we do need public policy measures that create space for varied individuals and institutions to live out their very different religious beliefs. This applies to Muslims. It applies to the increasing number of religious organizations that support same-sex marriage and affirm non-conforming sexualities and gender identities. And yes, it applies to religious individuals and groups with an orthodox understanding of marriage, sexuality, and gender expression. But public policy measures must create space for our religious “other” to live out their faith-based beliefs and practices on a level playing field with our own.

For Christians, Matthew 7:12 should guide our actions in shaping public policy: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do to them also, for this is the law of the prophets.” If a public policy measure is being advanced that privileges one faith paradigm over another, advocates for religious freedom should come together across religious and ideological difference to ensure that they consider how such a piece of legislation might also advance the religious freedom of those with whom they disagree.

In July, U.S District Court Judge Carlton Reeves blocked a “religious freedom” bill in Mississippi from going into effect that would have protected Mississippi individuals and groups with religious beliefs that marriage is between a man and woman only, that sex should be confined to a man-woman marriage, and that gender is determined at birth. Reeves stated in his opinion: “The state has put its thumb on the scale to favor some religious beliefs over others…[the law] favors Southern Baptist over Unitarian doctrine, Catholic over Episcopalian doctrine, and Orthodox Judaism over Reform Judaism doctrine.”

In states seeking to pass laws that make space for individuals and organizations to live out their orthodox faith precepts about marriage and sexuality, the better approach would be to ask “how could public policy also protect those who answer questions about how faith calls us to live differently than how I answer them?” 

There is not a one-size-fits-all solution.  But there is a way forward. One approach to consider includes narrow, single-issue religious freedom laws like what Michigan passed last year. This law did not privilege one set of faith beliefs over another, but rather provided the freedom needed for differentiated faith-based and secular child placement providers to embody their organizational identities and missions through their services, and therefore place as many children in homes as possible.


Religious individuals and institutions seeking to advance their own freedom to practice their faith in the public square should consider how the totality of their faith-inspired practices are consistent with their faith doctrines and do justice to all those they serve and partner with.  When faith organizations do not take the time to listen to all the voices in their community, especially the minority voices, then it becomes all too easy adopt practices that may not do justice to those minorities.

To consistently embody their faith doctrines in all of their organizational practices, religious organizations should ensure that they abide in faith-based practices that consistently reflect the faith-based doctrines and messages they are sending.  For example, many faith-based colleges claim that they love and welcome LGBT students willing to abide in orthodox religious understandings of human sexuality. Where this is the case, faith-based institutions of higher education have to ensure that both their official practices and their campus culture reinforce this stance.

How does religious freedom create the space for us to love our neighbors across difference...?

If a faith-based college embraces LGBT students willing to abide in orthodox sexual ethics, yet has open showers on campus, how does this practice help LGBT students avoid compromising situations every time they need to shower? The same can be asked of a religious college that claims to welcome gay students but tolerates dismissive language toward challenges LGBT persons face. In instances such as these, LGBT students and many others are not going to miss the message:  a religious institution is failing to consistently embody its own faith-based doctrine in its institutional practices and culture, to the detriment of some of the most vulnerable members of its community.  

Young people are especially perceptive of these inconsistencies. In short, many millennials have a hard time taking religious freedom seriously when those advocating for it aren’t taking seriously the ways in which their practices fail to live up to their own faith commitments to others.

Public Perception:

The public’s perception of religious freedom, rightly or wrongly, is closely tied to the words and actions of religious actors. In other words, the little ways in which a religious individual or institution engages in shaping policy or in their own daily faith-based practices eventually creates an overall perception of who they are and what they stand for. 

How can people and organizations of faith reframe the narrative of them as intolerant, without sacrificing their deeply held convictions?  They must go beyond tolerance and seek to love, through their words and deeds, through their public policy engagement and daily practices, those with whom they have deep and abiding differences.  Conservative Mormon lawmakers in the state of Utah did just that when they passed legislation in 2015 that both advanced religious freedom and protected LGBT individuals from discrimination in housing and employment. This piece of legislation has been called the Utah Compromise.  Yet to hear Senator Stewart Adams speak candidly about how his faith calls him to love the “other,” is to confirm that for him, he was not compromising his faith but living out his faith in protecting those with whom he disagrees through the legislative process.  Adams states: “I actually believe I'm living my religion now as I look out and try to do good to those that maybe don't agree with me, those that may hate me or loving my neighbor or trying to be respectful of other people.”

Many orthodox religious actors, both individuals and institutions, in fact do sincerely love their neighbors. Often they show their love of neighbor and other by advocating against injustices against the vulnerable, especially in the areas of human trafficking, predatory lending, and refugee resettlement. Yet when these religious actors discuss their work in these areas, they often don’t make the connection for their audiences (whether their donors, the media, their services recipients, or policy makers) that this work is undergirded by their religious freedom to participate in such work. 

Religious freedom advances the capacity of thousands of faith-based refugee organizations in this country to continue to serve the stranger.  It would not be possible for churches, faith-based homeless shelters, and even faith-based food trucks to continue to feed the hungry without the foundational value of religious freedom on which this country was founded.  Religious freedom is at the heart of spiritually motivated political protests, such as the current protest of thousands of Native Americans at Standing Rock to preserve what they understand to be their sacred water and sacred land.  Religious freedom is thousands of untold stories of racial reconciliation, environmental stewardship, and treatment for substance abuse

These are the stories, both anecdotally and collectively, that religious freedom advocates need to tell.  Again, not because we need to hoodwink the larger public into supporting religious freedom for our good, but because religious freedom is a positive bedrock of a pluralist society.  How does religious freedom create the space for us to love our neighbors across difference, through how we shape public policy, through the consistency of our faithful practices, and through our shaping of public perception? Maybe if we step up and take seriously the scare quotes in which religious freedom currently finds itself, we can capture the public’s imagination of the positive potential for what religious freedom could be: a call to do the hard work of loving God and loving neighbor in a pluralist public square.

 -Chelsea Langston Bombino is the Director of Equipping and Membership at the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, a division of the Center for Public Justice. She holds a JD from the University of Michigan and is a licensed attorney by the State Bar of Michigan.