Advancing Religious Freedom And Responsibility Through Changing Times

This article originally appeared in Public Justice Review, a publication by the Center for Public Justice (CPJ). Shared Justice is an initiative of CPJ, and this article is part of a series celebrating the organization's 40th anniversary.

Religious responsibility is probably not the idea that first pops into the minds of people these days when they hear the words “religious freedom.” In an article published last year, “Does ‘Religious Freedom’ Deserve Scare Quotes?”, Sunnivie Brydum captures the essence of the painful, but authentic, sentiments felt by an increasing number of Americans. Brydum argues, “Placing a legitimate phrase or concept in quotes is the textual equivalent of adding air quotes and rolling one’s eyes.” The understanding of religious freedom for much of the public has shifted in recent years from being about protecting the beliefs and practices of all religions to a privileging of traditional Judeo-Christian sexual ethics.

Yet for forty years, the Center for Public Justice has offered a distinctive, principled pluralist understanding of religious freedom as a vital contribution to the common good. While many Americans may see religious conviction leading to a self-protective religious freedom, our religious conviction leads us to embrace religious freedom that extends to all.

Within a Christian public justice framework, we understand that all people are created in the image of God and are called to be image bearers in every area of life. Humans, regardless of whether they know and follow Christ, are programmed to seek out a divine creative being. We are made not just to worship, but to orient every area of our lives toward what we believe is sacred. Because this orientation towards the sacred is part of what makes people human, we must, as Christians, actively support religious freedom for people and organizations of all faiths.  As Christians, we seek to have freedom to fully exercise our faith in every aspect of our lives, individually and corporately, but we also have the responsibility to ensure such freedom for those with whom we disagree about life’s most basic truths—they, too, as God’s creatures, are seeking the deep meaning of life.

Our religious responsibility insists that religious freedom should not be used by one religious group to try to deny the freedoms of others to fully live out what their sacred animating beliefs call them to in the public square. This applies as equally to an Evangelical organization with traditional sexual ethics as it does to a Muslim woman wanting to wear a hijab at work, to an Episcopal priest who performs a same-sex marriage, to an atheist group making that case that God doesn’t exist.

This support for religious freedom and responsibility is not equivalent to lauding theological pluralism, as in the conviction that all roads lead to God and all faith systems contain the same and equal truths. We recognize that there are real differences between and even within different religious systems. By supporting religious freedom for all of them, we are not saying that all of them are the same or are equally valid. Rather, we celebrate the protections, both individual and institutional, that our nation guarantees for every faith--for those we find congenial and those that are distant. In our religious freedom work, we promote public policies that enable all religious actors to embody and express their distinctive beliefs and practices, and we encourage faith-based organizations to exercise their freedoms responsibly.

Religious Freedom Then and Now

When CPJ’s work began four decades ago, religious freedom was commonly framed as the separation of church and state. For some, this was a way to minimize the role of religion in society, but others saw this separation as necessary to prevent the government from dominating religion. Indeed, maintaining a zone of freedom for the worship and teaching of churches, mosques, and temples is essential, but what should be the guiding principles when the work of government and the work of religious institutions overlap? 

That was the urgent question raised by welfare reform in the 1990s. As politicians and social analysts across the political spectrum sought to draw into the government’s welfare effort new and more effective service providers, they saw how churches and faith-based nonprofits daily and faithfully served their neighbors, often with little public notice. These organizations served as distinctively faith-based organizations, living out an identifiably faith-based mission in every aspect of the lives of their ministries. That put them on the “church” side of the wall separating church and state, apparently excluded from government funding by the “no establishment” requirement of the First Amendment. 

The US Supreme Court, though, had started to make the wall less rigid in the 1980s, culminating in the watershed Mitchell v. Helms decision of 2000. This decision ruled that when it was a matter of religious organizations serving society, such as charities and schools, government respect for religion required neutrality or equal treatment, not exclusion from funding. 

The Center for Public Justice had already been advocating for just this view, and it played an active role in the adoption of the “Charitable Choice” provision in the 1996 welfare reform law. Charitable Choice requires government officials to seek the most effective service providers, whether faith-based or not. It protects the religious identity of faith-based organizations, including their right to offer services marked by religious activities. But it also calls religious organizations to exercise responsibility to their services recipients by respecting their religious freedom: services supported by government grants have to be non-religious, no one can be turned away because of their faith or lack of faith, and beneficiaries can ask for a different, secular provider.

We celebrate the protections, both individual and institutional, that our nation guarantees for every faith—for those we find congenial and those that are distant.

Additionally, the government can fund some services by vouchers, giving people a choice of where to go. For example, under the George W. Bush administration’s Access to Recovery program, the government funded vouchers for those who needed substance abuse treatment. Because individuals received vouchers and had a choice of where to receive the treatment they needed, they could choose programs that contained explicitly spiritual or religious elements, or they could choose programs that were completely secular in nature. This way, religion could be integrated into the government-supported services without the government privileging one religion over another.  This is the way federally funded child care is structured—parents can choose religious or non-religious day care—and how the federal government supports higher education, supporting students that attend secular colleges and those who attend religious colleges.

This provision demonstrates how government can uphold religious freedom for religious institutions and religious freedom for persons seeking help. As the CPJ Guideline on Welfare states, “When government does partner with NGOs, it must protect their autonomy and diversity. Many of the NGOs that provide welfare assistance are forthrightly faith-based. In keeping with the First Amendment, government must not discriminate against such groups. Instead, it should grant faith-based organizations the same opportunities offered to all other service groups and protect their distinctive religious character if they become its partners. Government can best honor the religious liberty of persons and families that need public welfare assistance by ensuring that a variety of providers with different philosophies of assistance are available.” Thus, the Charitable Choice provision shows respect for the religious freedom of both services providers and services recipients, and this language affirms religious services providers’ commitments to serve responsibly within their faith-based convictions.

President George W. Bush built on this “both/and” approach in government-funded services by instituting the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and counterpart Centers in major federal departments.  These various offices worked to make sure that federal officials understood the “equal treatment” rules inspired by Charitable Choice; helped faith-based and other community organizations understand how to engage with the federal government, while helping federal officials understand how their programs might be enhanced by partnering with community organizations; and provided training so that faith-based organizations understood their rights and responsibilities if they received federal funds.

President Barack Obama maintained these various specialized federal offices and promulgated guidance that demonstrated his support for the equal treatment principles while introducing some positive refinements. The Center for Public Justice had helped President Bush design his faith-based initiative and, in turn, advised President Obama’s officials on these issues as well. CPJ continues to communicate with officials within the current administration to provide insight, perspective, and support and to help shape a vision for a federal faith-based initiative that recognizes the value of faith-based organizations in local communities. We are meeting with faith-based offices at various federal agencies and offering our subject matter expertise on the equal treatment rules that have been refined and maintained throughout the past twenty years.

New Initiatives

CPJ’s commitment to promoting both individual and institutional rights and responsibilities is distinctive in our current political climate. On the right, the emphasis is often on protecting the freedom of persons and institutions from government. The left often looks to government as the guarantor of what persons and organizations need. CPJ, however, affirms the indispensable role of government in doing what no other entity can accomplish, while also regarding a major task of government to be facilitating the activity of individuals and institutions themselves.

At the heart of our principled pluralist vision is the acknowledgement that we are diverse in our heart commitments, a nation of multiple religions, divergent values, and varied philosophies. CPJ calls for public policies and legal decisions that respect these varied confessions, in part by protecting the freedom of different institutions—schools, adoption agencies, charities, health clinics—to operate in accordance with the faiths or philosophies that inspired their creation.

CPJ has a long history of what one person recently called “teaching people to think institutionally.” With respect to religious freedom and religious responsibility, we not only equip individuals to advocate for their freedom to fulfill the responsibilities to which God calls them but we also work particularly with faith-based organizations. Through CPJ’s Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, we equip diverse faith-based organizations—diverse in faith, diverse in areas of service—to understand and to stand up for the freedom they need while fulfilling their responsibilities to those they serve. 

To this end, we have just launched a new project we call the Sacred Sector that supports organizations with faith-based missions. The Sacred Sector project will focus on equipping and empowering diverse faith-based organizations with their different animating faiths and areas of focus to live out their sacred missions in public life. We will challenge and equip them to fully incarnate and integrate their faith-based identities into every area of their organizational lives: how they engage in public policy, how they adopt best practices, and how they cultivate a positive public perception. Although this is a new path for us, it is really just a new iteration of the same commitment to religious freedom for all to fully live into our distinctive religious responsibilities in our pluralistic society.

One key issue at present is the intersection of religious freedom with the expansion of protections for the LGBT community. The Obergefell same-sex marriage decision and the strong public agreement that LGBT persons should not face invidious discrimination, especially in housing and employment, have brought this issue to the foreground. Can federal law enable American citizens and organizations holding contrasting convictions about human sexuality live together as good neighbors? In a similar manner to its work with the issue of government funding for faith-based organizations, CPJ has been addressing this ongoing and pressing question with a commitment to the common good.

We are key actors in engaging with groups across difference--groups that are religiously different and groups that hold diverse views on sexual orientation and gender identity. Through this ongoing dialogue, we continue to learn from each other and to form meaningful relationships with those with whom we disagree. We are finding common ground in our mutual desire to love our neighbor as ourselves in our diverse political community. And we are deeply engaged in initiatives to craft federal policies that both advance religious freedom and uphold LGBT rights so that citizens and organizations with their differing beliefs can live by their convictions without disrespecting those with other identities and ways of life.

-Stanley Carlson-Thies is the founder and Senior Director of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance (IRFA), a division of the Center for Public Justice. 

-Chelsea Langston Bombino is Director of Strategic Engagement at the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance.