The National Catholic Review
The redefinition of religious liberty in American society

Americans are rightly proud of our tradition of religious liberty. The founders recognized that religious convictions cut very deeply into the soul, making people capable of great sacrifices—and often stimulating bitter conflicts and terrible persecutions. Thus we have the First Amendment and its definition of the first freedom: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

We need to recognize, however, that our approach to religious freedom has in fact changed a great deal in the more than 200 years of national history. These changes reflect shifts in the overarching religious consensus in the United States. By my reading of the signs of the times, this consensus is changing yet again. The shift foretells a renegotiation and redefinition of the nature and scope of religious liberty—one that I fear will not favor religious believers.

Historical Context

There have been three main phases or agreements about religious liberty in our country. The first was a federalism that recognized local forms of establishment but wished to keep the national government out of the religion business. The second corresponded to the long century of ecumenical Protestant hegemony that naturally intertwined itself with state power. And the third, which followed the Second World War, has been characterized by a move toward religious neutrality.

Phase One. At the time the Constitution was written, the Congregational Church was established in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and it received public support from tax revenue. In Georgia and South Carolina, the Anglican or Episcopal Church was established. It was not until Everson v. Board of Education in 1947 that the Supreme Court stipulated that non-establishment and free exercise applied to the states as well as the federal government. Nevertheless, soon after the nation was founded, elite opinion consolidated around a view that government should remain at a distance from religion. This consensus had two sources: one focused on the rights of individual conscience and the other on the integrity of the church as an independent institution.

This position led to disestablishment in the states, culminating with Massachusetts in 1830. It is important to recognize, however, that this consensus was very pro-religion. Political and cultural leaders did not want any particular denomination to have privileged access to state power, but they were in favor of a religious society and thus a religiously inspired public culture. Or, to be more accurate, they were in favor of a Protestant society and a Protestant-inspired government.

Phase Two. By the time of crusading Abolitionism and the formation of the Republican Party in 1854, the ascendancy of a pan-Protestant consensus was in full swing. It reached its high point with Prohibition. A person can still find public monuments in many American cities dedicated to the crusade against demon rum. They often feature an expanded list of theological virtues: faith, hope, love—and temperance. The insertion of “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 was a late, defensive expression of the power of this consensus, which was already being challenged by a new secularism.

The Protestant consensus encouraged anti-Catholicism in culture as well as law. In 1875 President Ulysses S. Grant urged the creation of public schools “unmixed with sectarian, pagan or atheistical dogmas.” Non-sectarian and non-atheistical meant schools that could be trusted to inculcate American values, meaning generic and non-dogmatic Protestant values, which were considered the finest expression of true freedom. Here religious freedom means the freedom to be a generic Protestant, with Catholicism grudgingly tolerated at best, and Mormons subject to intense persecution. The courts interpreted religious freedom accordingly.

The Protestant consensus became more capacious as the 20th century wore on. After World War II it expanded to include Judaism and Catholicism, and we came to think of ourselves as a religious nation committed to Judeo-Christian values. But as the religious consensus expanded, it also eroded. Influential writers like H. L. Mencken mocked religious believers, reflecting an increasingly confident and outspoken view that religion—especially traditional Christianity—is a social liability that hinders progress. Many factors contributed to this emerging opinion. The abject failure of Prohibition soured many on Protestantism’s crusading spirit. Newly emerging Protestant fundamentalism was self-consciously antagonistic and reflected an anti-establishment populism. For many the threat to society changed. Whatever their personal beliefs, the founders thought religion good for society and atheism a threat. By contrast, for someone like Mr. Mencken or Clarence Darrow or Margaret Sanger, religion was the problem.

Phase Three. Our constitutional interpretation came to reflect this new development. It shifted toward an ideal of religious neutrality. The Supreme Court decision in 1947 that applied the prohibition of religious establishment to the states led to the development of a complex set of legal rules limiting the role of religion in public life.

Law professors rightly seek to clarify this jurisprudence, but for our purposes I think a broad but largely accurate simplification will suffice: our constitutional law concerning religious liberty sought to secure an orderly separation of religion from the social influence the Protestant era had encouraged. This separation has helped protect small religious minorities from undue public control, but the major emphasis has been on restraining the influence of religious majorities.

Preoccupations with prayer at high school graduation ceremonies provide the most obvious example. The court has been eager to protect the tender conscience of the lonely, unbelieving student from the supposedly great social pressures of an anodyne interdenominational prayer by a local pastor. The danger is not that a hardline Calvinist will impose his doctrines on wishy-washy Methodists, which the founders worried about. Instead, the court after World War II reflected a broader concern that believers of all stripes are too predominant and therefore make unbelievers feel uncomfortable and excluded. Freedom of religion therefore means the option of being free from religion. I believe this emphasis will characterize the next phase of our history: the shift from individual freedom from religion to a vision of society as a whole free from religious influence.

The Anti-Religious Cohort

Over the last few decades the Mencken cohort has grown. In the 1950s around 3 percent of Americans checked the “none” box in surveys asking about religious affiliation. Now 20 percent of the population does so. Moreover, these so-called “nones” are heavily represented in elite culture. A recent report on family life from the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture identifies parents they call the “engaged progressives.” Representing 21 percent of parents, this group is the most highly educated and most influential. It overlaps with the nones. Fewer than 20 percent in this group go to church regularly. More than half never attend.

In itself this demographic change need not foretell dramatic changes in law. A significant segment of Americans who do not go to church might support the now established postwar trend toward religious neutrality: the belief that the country needs to make space for unbelievers and not presume their adherence to a religious consensus, however vague. But the nones and engaged progressives are not just irreligious. They are often anti-religious and eager to limit the influence of traditional Christianity.

As the study observes, engaged progressive parents value tolerance and diversity, but their overall moral outlook puts them at odds with many religious people. Nones and engaged progressives overwhelming support abortion and gay marriage, for example. They are also highly partisan; an overwhelming majority vote for liberal candidates and have thus become a key pillar of the Democratic Party. This moral and political profile makes them hostile to traditional religion. The study explains: “The only type of diversity that engaged progressives might tacitly oppose within their children’s friendship network would be a born-again Christian.”

The anti-religious instinct of this cohort came into the open during the last election cycle. Delegates to the Democratic National Convention notoriously struck the word God from the party platform, only to have it halfheartedly restored by anxious party leaders. During the election the talking points included attacking the Republican “war on women.” This well-crafted slogan was designed to rally the nones, the secular base that is now the largest identifiable constituency in the Democratic Party.

Institutions of cultural authority tell us what is good and respectable—and what is bad and shameful. It is now crushingly obvious that this machinery, which can include museums, universities, foundations or mainstream media, reflects many of the values of the nones and engaged progressives. From their point of view, traditional Christianity is quaint when confined to exotic liturgies or remote Amish communities, but it most certainly should not influence the future of American culture and politics.

This shift toward antagonism cannot help but affect our attitudes toward religious liberty. Our Constitution accords rights to the people, and the courts cannot void them willy-nilly. Therefore, unless the Constitution is amended, there will always be a prohibition of establishment and a right of free exercise. But history shows that the Constitution is a plastic document. When elite culture thinks something is bad for society as a whole, judges find ways to suppress it. In the late 19th century, for example, the First Amendment offered no protection for Mormons. In 1890 the Supreme Court upheld the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887, legislation that prohibited polygamy and dissolved the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and confiscated its property.

Trends in Jurisprudence

Not surprisingly, law professors today who view traditional Christianity as a social threat are beginning to theorize changes to the law. I see three trends. The first and most obvious involves what I have called the Selma analogy: the equation of gay liberation with the historic struggle for civil rights for black Americans. The second shifts from freedom of religion to freedom of worship. The third hopes to redefine religious liberty as a general liberty of conscience.

The civil rights laws adopted in the 1960s were designed to bulldoze racism out of American public life, and the Selma analogy prepares the way for a narrowing of religious freedom by equating dissent from progressive values with discrimination. Proponents of gay rights, for example, believe the freedom of religious individuals and institutions should be limited if they do not conform to the new consensus about sexual morality.

Some judges already agree. In 2008 the New Mexico Human Rights Commission determined that wedding photographers violated the state’s anti-discrimination law by refusing to photograph a lesbian commitment ceremony. The photographers, Elaine and Jonathan Huguenin, appealed to the New Mexico Supreme Court, arguing that their religious views about marriage prevented them from photographing the ceremony. The court was not sympathetic. It applied what is called the “public accommodation doctrine” of civil rights law: those offering services to the general public may not discriminate. This doctrine overrides a great deal of what we think of as religious liberty.

In a concurring opinion Justice Richard C. Bosson put it clearly: “The Huguenins are free to think, to say, to believe, as they wish; they may pray to the God of their choice and follow those commandments in their personal lives wherever they lead,” but “in the smaller, more focused world of the marketplace, of commerce, of public accommodation,” they have to abide by anti-discrimination laws. This is “the price of citizenship,” he wrote. Apparently this price includes the violation of religious conscience when it comes to gay rights, which makes it seem that religious freedom is only allowed in the privacy of home or the precincts of church.

The shift toward a private, personal freedom that lacks space for public expression has become prominent in the ways the Obama administration talks about religious freedom. The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 sought to make religious freedom a diplomatic priority. The current administration consistently reframes this priority as freedom of worship. The shift in language is understandable. The United States has many allies in the Muslim world for whom anything like our approach to religious liberty is at best a remote possibility. For different reasons the same is the case in China and elsewhere. The danger, however, is that this narrow understanding of religious freedom will gain traction in our domestic debates and become another way for legal theorists to argue for a minimal interpretation of the First Amendment.

The Selma analogy and the diminution of religious liberty to a bare freedom of worship represent two ways to redefine the First Amendment. Added to these, I see a third and more dramatic threat: today some law professors ask why religious people should get special rights in the first place. Why should a Catholic or a Baptist or a Hindu get special constitutional protection, but not a committed utilitarian or ardent socialist? Evoking the principle of fairness, some now argue that the conscience of every person needs legal protection, not just consciences formed by religious traditions. Thus the First Amendment needs to be reinterpreted to provide freedom of conscience, not freedom of religion.

This mentality is libertarian and is gaining traction, not the least because it seems to expand rather than limit freedom. (Even representatives of the church can sometimes seem to imply this when they focus on conscience.) But the promise of expansion is an illusion. Libertarianism theorizes an unworkable system: If the conscience of every person must be equally respected, then we will have freedom of conscience only when nothing important is at stake.

There is no guarantee that our legal culture will follow the trajectories I have outlined. Judges are influenced by good legal arguments, and the defenders of religious freedom today may succeed in breaking down the Selma analogy and reverse the trend to attenuate religious freedom by redefining it as freedom of worship. The current membership of the U.S. Supreme Court has shown itself very firmly aligned with a robust approach to religious freedom. There are reasons to be hopeful in the near term. But history shows that the rule of law generally reflects what the social consensus believes is conducive to the common good. The law ministers to culture, not the other way around. The nones and other progressives are frustrated by the influence of traditional Christianity over American society. This makes me pessimistic about the medium and long term.

The Heart of the Conflict

To be blunt: Religious people who hold traditional values are in the way of what many powerful people want. We are in the way of widespread acceptance of abortion, unrestricted embryonic stem cell research and experimentation with fetal tissue. We are in the way of doctor-assisted suicide, euthanasia and the mercy-killing of genetically defective infants. We are in the way of new reproductive technologies, which will become more important as our society makes sex more sterile. We are in the way of gay rights and the redefinition of marriage. We are in the way of the nones and the engaged progressives and their larger goal of deconstructing traditional moral limits so that they can be reconstructed in accord with their vision of the future.

Traditional religious people are in the way, and many of our fellow Americans are doing their best to push us out of the way. The outspoken among us have been largely expelled from higher education and other institutions of cultural authority. This exclusion should not surprise us. Traditional Christianity and churchgoing no longer define the social consensus in the United States. The Protestant era is over, and in its demise we have not seen the Catholic moment that the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, founder of First Things, hoped for. Instead, we seem to be heading into the secular moment, which is almost certain to find ways to redefine religious liberty, or at least try.

In Islamic states, a dhimmi is a non-Muslim who is tolerated, but whose social existence is carefully circumscribed to ensure no threat to Muslim dominance. Have we reached the point at which our secular elites envision something similar for religious people with traditional values? We will be free to worship, but not to run universities or hospitals or social service agencies in accord with our principles. We will be free to believe as we wish, but not to run our businesses in accord with our beliefs. We will be permitted to exist as long as we do not openly challenge the progressive consensus.

Religious people need to support the good legal minds fighting for our freedom, but it is even more important that we fight against the temptation to accept dhimmitude. Yes, antagonism toward traditional Christianity is now common in our ruling class. One prejudice warmly approved by many secularists is that against so-called fundamentalists. But we need to remember that the secular moment does not correspond to religious decline. The committed core of believers, defined as those who attend church every Sunday, has remained remarkably constant for the last 50 years at between 25 to 35 percent of the population in the United States. Furthermore, the secular moment has no grassroots legacy to compare with the scope and commitment of the pro-life and home-schooling movements.

It is appropriate to conclude, therefore, with words of encouragement. Last summer a young Dominican brother studying for the priesthood served as an intern for First Things. He is an impressive man, one of a remarkable cohort of 20 who entered the Dominican Friars of the Province of St. Joseph a few years ago to begin formation. As I walked with him on the streets of New York City, I noticed that people often stare at his white, ankle-length outfit. Unlike the often-wild fashion statements that people parade as great expressions of protest or individuality but blend into the city as just another pose or posture, his simple habit represents something dangerously real. People intuit, however dimly, that he embodies a vision of the future that collides with the spirit of our age, and does so with frightening force.

Seeing these reactions I was reminded that our faith goes deep, very deep. And as the guardian and servant of this faith the church has tremendous power. As I contemplate the coming battles over religious freedom, I am consoled by this thought: Our secular challengers are right, very right, to see our faith as a dangerous and disruptive dissent.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: February 25, 2014

Due to an error introduced during the editing process, an earlier version of this article misidentified the date of the International Religious Freedom Act. It was 1998, not 1988.

R. R. Reno is editor of First Things and a former professor of theological ethics at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb.


Miguel K'nowles | 3/6/2014 - 2:08pm

Those of us that know, realize that this is true insanity.

Tim O'Leary | 3/6/2014 - 3:41pm

Miguel - what is the insanity?

Paul Ferris | 3/4/2014 - 9:45pm

A few years ago I read a book by Antonia Frasier about the Gunpowder Plot in the early 1600s in England. Jesuit priests said Mass in private homes at risk of torture and death. This book gave me an appreciation of what freedom of worship means today. All of us grew up on a country where we just take this freedom for granted. After reading Frasier's book I realized this was not always true. Not sure that this impacts the discussion at the moment but I just thought I would bring it up.

Louis Candell | 3/5/2014 - 6:22am

Hey folks,

It matters little whether or not our founding fathers were believing Christians. Although they rightly wished to allow religious freedom for all who wished to worship their God, they did not intend to found a theocracy. Thank God, these men had more sense than to attempt something so contrary to the enlightenment principles they held so dear.

Tim O'Leary | 3/4/2014 - 6:59pm

Louis - you are completely correct that the founders were adverse to a theocracy at the federal level, even though all states had some type of religious test for holding office (see my note below), and they all held that the morality informed by the Christian (meaning Protestant) religion was essential for civilization. But, they certainly had their own prejudices as well. Jefferson (deist) and Adams (Unitarian) were remarkably anticlerical and Jefferson had a unique way for overcoming his rights-of-man ideas when it came to his slaves. He also had a curious method of scriptural exegesis, involving a scissors. On the other hand, he might not have been as anticlerical as some commenters on this blog.

Louis Candell | 3/5/2014 - 6:19am

I hope you're not insinuating that I am anti-clerical but, in any event, allow me to state the allowing:

For the most part, the founders can accurately be labeled humanists. As such, their moral code would naturally coincide with most established religious tenets. On need not be religious in order to be a moral person. As for Jefferson, I recall that he stated that it made no difference to him whether a person worshipped one God, many gods or no god at all because it neither picked his pocket nor broke his leg. This doesn't sound like someone who believed that Christianity itself was a prerequisite for good government .

Paul Ferris | 3/4/2014 - 11:02am

Traditional Catholicism has a different understanding of positive law than Locke's understanding. For Catholic there is a hierarchy of law. #1. Eternal law; #2. Natural law; #3. Positive law. I think this needs to be kept in mind during this discussion.

Michael Barberi | 3/4/2014 - 4:56pm


I think Aquinas taught there were several types of laws: the Eternal law, Divine law, Human law and Natural law. No one really knows the eternal law for it is God's mind and his reason for doing things. This law is universal and unchanging. Divine law is mainly derived from scripture in the Old and New Testament. It is open to interpretation. Human law is somethings called positive law, and these are laws made by humans. These laws vary throughout the world. Natural law is more general and less specific than human law. It is more perfect than human law and it is driven by first principles such as: always seek to do good and avoid evil, and the principle of non-contradiction. What is considered natural is not always considered the moral. For example, Thomas's understanding of natural law was not based on the non-frustration or normatively of natural ends.

Therefore, if the magisterium definitively declares that a moral teaching is God's law, plan or will, one might rightly ask: who knows God's plan with moral certainty? It is the purpose of theology to help resist the constant temptation of absolutizing, especially when what is being declared with moral certainty as God's plan is based on one person's (e..g, a bishop or pope) philosophical anthropology, personalism and symbolism. Some things can be declared with the truth with moral certainty, such as: never kill an innocent person. However, only Christians declare with certainly that Jesus is the son of God.

Many moral teachings are subject to interpretation and some are based on metaphysical leaps as symbolic speculation. They are not all universal or unchanging. This does not mean that Catholics should pick and choose what teachings suit their circumstances in life, but it does mean that some teachings may go against one's informed conscience, right reason and human experience. Such disagreements do not mean that these Catholics are unfaithful or that their beliefs are more true than the magisterium. It does mean that one must never go against one's informed conscience even if it is going against what a pope said. However, Catholics must be careful about what it means by an "informed conscience" and this means a lot of hard work. In other words, such decisions of disagreement should never be taken lightly and the person should be always open to further education, prayer, priestly counsel, sacrament, etc.

There is a hierarchy of law and values and this is not easily determined save for some obvious ones such as safe-guarding one's life (self-preservation).

Paul Ferris | 3/4/2014 - 10:59am

It seems to me that our country was founded upon a "preferential option for secularity." Most of our founding Fathers were deists which to me is a form of secularity. Don't deny God. He set the world on its course and then retired from the fray. What could be more secular than that belief ?

Tim O'Leary | 3/4/2014 - 12:52pm

Paul - there is a good argument for the opposite conclusion - a preferential option for religious belief and practice. The founders were predominantly Protestant Christians. John Adams was not (he is described as a "devout" Unitarian), although even he said the following ""Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."

George Washington, in his 1st inaugural address (2nd paragraph) said “it would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official Act, my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the Universe, who presides in the Councils of Nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that his benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the People of the United States, a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes: and may enable every instrument employed in its administration to execute with success, the functions allotted to his charge.” He goes on to say “No People can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the Affairs of men more than the People of the United States. Every step, by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation, seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency.” Notice the present tense of the words “rules," presides," and "conducts.” Whatever it is, it is not "retiring from the fray."

Of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, 50% were officially Episcopalians & 38% Calvinists. There were 2 Unitarians (Adams & Paine) and 2 Deists (Jefferson & Franklin), 2 Quakers and 1 Catholic. Madison, though not a signer, was officially an Episcopalian but was a strict separationist.

Paul Ferris | 3/4/2014 - 4:08pm

I believe in the same address George Washington said the US should avoid foreign entanglements which was also very pious considering the States would not have won the revolutionary war without the help of the French. The United States in its entire history has never avoided foreign entanglements.

Paul Ferris | 3/4/2014 - 4:04pm

Maybe I should have written, preferential option for neutrality or pluralism. The founders saw the intolerance in Europe of Catholics and Protestants so they knew how things quickly got out of hand. That is not to say that if religion could be used to keep the peace and obey the laws, it was not a good thing. Whoever was in the majority in a State of territory, their religion had pride of place and held sway over the others to some degree including the laws.

Tim O'Leary | 3/4/2014 - 8:25pm

Paul - there is a site, called "Stop the Religious Right" (I like to read what the opposition is saying - which collected all the religious liberty clauses of the 13 original states in their 1776-1784 Constitutions. It is very revealing, as long as one can get beyond their excessive use of "Taliban" for the evangelicals.

The majority of states equated religious freedom and conscience with Protestantism, including oaths for the inspired veracity of the Old and New Testaments in three. Three used broader definitions of Christian (MD, NY & PA) and Virginia, where Rosemarie's heroes lived, had the broadest most generic idea of religion. The agrarian slave-holding southern states also had landowner requirements for political office. So, it would be interesting to have Rosemaria comment on whether the Virginians interpretation of one's conscience was the norm at the time, as far as the average American was concerned.

Paul Ferris | 3/4/2014 - 10:03pm


Good link. Thanks.

ROSEMARI ZAGARRI PROF | 2/28/2014 - 1:21pm

As a committed Catholic, I find much in this article deeply troubling, especially a presumed unanimity in moral beliefs among Catholics and an "us v. them" defensiveness of believers against secularists. As an Early American historian, however, I am even more concerned by the author's reading of the history of religious liberty in the Founding Era. Although I could take issue with many particular points, the one I would most like to challenge is this: that the First Amendment's assertion of a right to religious freedom is only now being "reinterpreted" as freedom of conscience to serve the goals of a secularists. Although a diversity of views on religious liberty existed at the time of the founding, it is important to understand that Thomas Jefferson, who authored the Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty in 1786, and James Madison, who authored the draft of the Bill of Rights, DID believe that religious liberty was identical with freedom of conscience.Here is one key piece of evidence: Madison’s original proposal to Congress on June 8, 1789 stated that, “The Civil Rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, nor on any pretext infringed.” Some would say that we are not now "reinterpreting" the First Amendment; rather, only now are we finally realizing its true, full meaning.

Michael Barberi | 3/2/2014 - 5:36pm


What would be the so-called boundaries between freedom of religion and freedom of conscience, and non-discrimination and other civil, state or constitutional laws? How far do we push the "constitutional rights of the individual" as a business owner by allowing such owners to refuse to provide a public business service (e.g., wedding photography) to those who are practicing something that is legal (e.g., two same-sex individuals getting married in a civil service) but who are considered to be entering into an immoral relationship according to the religion of the business person?

I think that asking a bakery owner to bake a cake in the shape of a large penis (something not normally sold by bakeries) is quite different from asking a wedding photographer to take the same type of pictures of a same-sex wedding, as he/she would do for a heterosexual wedding. Likewise, if contraceptive coverage can be an excluded coverage in a employer's health plan because contraception is immoral according to the religious beliefs of the business owner, then should not blood transfusions be also an excluded coverage because such services go against another business owner's religious beliefs?

It seems to me that such questions are a matter of civil law, not church law, or are matters that must be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court for they are in the gray areas or boundary areas. I do agree with you that many of these arguments presume a unanimity in moral beliefs and reflect a divisive and sometimes an evil "us vs. them" , "the church vs. the secular world", "the believers vs. the non-believers" mentality. I do agree that there needs to be boundaries, but what those boundaries are is not to be decided solely by a universal moral theology, unless there is one.

Tim O'Leary | 3/1/2014 - 10:50am

Rosemari - doesn't your quote include both the freedom to practice one's religion and to worship, as well as freedom of conscience. I think Reno's point was that the new legal trend was 1) a narrowing of practice to only worship and 2) a replacing religion with conscience. Also, Jefferson supported giving government funds to support religious schools. Hasn't that understanding been lost?

As to the "unanimity in moral beliefs among Catholics" I think he was speaking of the official (well-known, formal teaching) Catholic understanding that was being burdened by the new understanding. Of course, one could call oneself Catholic and not hold to many or any of the Church's teachings, but that is not what he thinks is under threat. Is your broader point that religious freedom is alive and well and not under threat at all?

Marie Rehbein | 3/1/2014 - 10:06am

nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, nor on any pretext infringed

This can be interpreted different ways, though. The individual has a right to "do his own thing" vs. the individual has a right to do his own thing to others, for example.

Sandi Sinor | 2/28/2014 - 5:41pm

Thank you, Dr. Zaggari - a lot of people need to be reminded of this.

Jeanne Linconnue | 2/26/2014 - 9:47am

This article reaches some extreme conclusions. Unfortunately, I do not have the time to provide a meaningful and factual counter to it at this time.. Drew Christiansen has taken on at least a few points in a blog post.

Even though Mr. Christiansen's article is very mild in its criticisms of Mr. Reno's article, it is at least a bit of a much needed corrective.

Tim O'Leary | 2/27/2014 - 10:43am

Drew Christiansen's article on freedom of conscience is good and responds to one paragraph above. Of course, Dr. Reno was making a much broader argument about the infringement of religious liberty and making the point that one's conscience and one's religion are not the same thing, even though both are fundamentally important.

Freedom of religion is the right to bind oneself to an authority outside oneself that is not the government. And, our first right in the First Amendment is to have the government not interfere with that specific freedom.

Louis Candell | 2/24/2014 - 10:25am

Time for some humor - at the expense of Bible thumpers everywhere

FEBRUARY 22, 2014

PHOENIX (The Borowitz Report)—Arizona Governor Jan Brewer said today that she was reluctant to sign an anti-gay “religious freedom” bill passed by the Arizona state legislature this week, telling reporters, “I believe that bigotry and hatred should be free of government regulation.”

She said that while many Arizona business owners currently enjoy employing hateful practices, “I worry that if big government gets involved, that’ll ruin everything.”

“Don’t get me wrong—I think the anti-gay bill that the legislature passed was well-meaning,” she said. “All I’m saying is, let’s leave it to the private sector.”

Offering an example, she added, “Look at how Obamacare has messed up health care. I’d hate to pass a new law that results in government wrecking bigotry.”

But Governor Brewer got some pushback today from Republican legislator Harland Dorrinson, who told reporters, "I’m as opposed to big government as anyone. But promoting hate-based bias is one area where I believe government has an important role to play.”

For her part, Governor Brewer remains unconvinced by that argument. Noting that the current system of hatred and bigotry in place in Arizona has worked well for decades, she said, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Tim O'Leary | 2/27/2014 - 10:52am

Louis - bigotry is alive and well on the progressive side, as you know. But, smart idea to hide it under the cover of humor. You will know that the Governor vetoed the bill, which is the right decision as it was too broad. No homosexuals should be discriminated against in their daily activities. but, neither should religious people be forced to participate in events they find morally objectionable. For example, a Jewish photographer should not be liable to a suit because he refuses to provide his services to a KKK event. And no Catholic school should be required to hire anti-Catholic or atheist teachers.

Louis Candell | 2/27/2014 - 5:21pm

I agree.

Marie Rehbein | 2/25/2014 - 3:27pm

She may actually have to use this.

Michael Barberi | 2/20/2014 - 4:55pm

I agree with Louis Candell. Why are the opinions of gay people that want to be married civilly have to do with the rights of Catholics to practice their religion? How are the voices of progressive people silencing or muzzling out the voices of the Catholic faithful? Where is the evidence that progressives are discriminating against the people of the Catholic Church?

The example of the wedding photographer refusing to offer their public services to a gay couple because the a gay wedding goes against their Catholic beliefs is an exaggerated expression of the freedom of religious and religious conscience.

We live in a pluralistic society in the U.S. and challenges to a law, the formation of a new law, or a right to religious freedom or the freedom of religious conscience can be brought by any group to a Court of Law and have their day in court. The issues under consideration involve the 'boundaries' between the expression of freedom of religion and conscience and secular civil and non-discrimination laws.

What I find objectionable is the demeaning and hateful rhetoric towards those who have a different belief and the exaggerated consequences of their voices on the rights of Catholics. This has turned into a war between progressives and traditionalists, of liberals versus conservatives, of the Catholic Church versus the Secular World, et al. The divisive positing of subjects, not arguments, go nowhere.

Joe Smith | 2/23/2014 - 2:01pm

It is "progressives" that want to turn upside down the construct of the institution of marriage. They brought this fight to society. They are provoking most Americans with this absurd and illogical push to fundamentally and radically change marriage. Because of this, the burden of proof is on them to prove without reasonable doubt that this will not harm society. This will take a couple of generations of study to get an accurate picture. There is no need to rush into radical change to marriage. Otherwise, you open up marriage to all kinds of bizzare social arrangements...if you follow their "logic" (note the quotation marks).

Joe Smith | 2/22/2014 - 3:25pm

"How are the voices of progressive people silencing or muzzling out the voices of the Catholic faithful?"

I am not Catholic, but this is a very naive statement.

Michael Barberi | 2/23/2014 - 7:06pm


If the statement is what you call "very naive", then answer the question.

Catholics are free to have their voices heard just like other Americans. It is called free speech. As long as one group or individual is not preventing the fee speech of others, then I fail to see how my statement is very naive (in your opinion). This assumes that we have respectful speech and that such speech does not lead to violence or prohibit the constitutional rights of others. Merely because other people have a different opinion or religious belief does not muzzle or silence the voices of others.

In the end, the States will decide the issue of same sex marriage, or the U.S. Supreme Court because this is a civil legal and constitutional issue. I say 'civil issue', primarily because same sex couples are not asking to be married in a Catholic Church or to have right to do so. They are asking for a right to marry civilly or to legally enter into a same sex union with the same civil rights accorded heterosexual married couples. You can believe that such civil unions or civil marriages are immoral according to your religious beliefs, however, this has nothing to do with civil law in the U.S. pluralistic society.

Joe Smith | 2/23/2014 - 11:04pm

"Catholics are free to have their voices heard just like other Americans. It is called free speech."


"As long as one group or individual is not preventing the free speech of others, then I fail to see how my statement is very naive (in your opinion). This assumes that we have respectful speech and that such speech does not lead to violence or prohibit the constitutional rights of others. Merely because other people have a different opinion or religious belief does not muzzle or silence the voices of others."

This is the naive part. I don't really think that there is "free speech" on this issue anymore. If I expressed my opinion where I work, I may be let go. I am certain in many places this is also the case. People on the left equate opposition to gay marriage as being a bigot or hating gays. I am "for" everyone...I care about everyone. I don't hate anyone.

I think the U.S. Supreme Court will have to weigh in on this issue. Unfortunately, in some states, the courts are deciding in a way contrary to what the citizens beliefs are on this topic (i.e. California). This is wrong.

I have no problem with them having a civil arrangement. They should never be able to be considered "marriage" though as that has always been a male/female it logically should be.

Michael Barberi | 2/26/2014 - 3:07pm


If you express your opinion where you work and are let go, then this may be illegal depending on the facts and circumstances. If the U.S. Supreme Court makes a decision on an issue such as gay marriage, it becomes law, until another U.S. Supreme Court decision reverses it. It could be wrong according to some people of faith, but fortunately or unfortunately, we live is a society governed by a constitution and not everyone has to like it but they can't break the law.

There is a difference between a Civil marriage and a Church marriage. This is logical enough to me. This does not mean that everyone should support either or both. My parish priest has no problem with same-sex ciivil unions, but believes that a marriage should be between a man and a woman. I find the material differences between a same-sex civil same-union (and all that it implies), while at that same time calling a marriage between a man and a woman the only truthful form of a marriage, somewhat perplexing. However, that discussion is for another day.

Tim O'Leary | 2/23/2014 - 8:34pm

Michael - I have to agree that you are completely missing the negative effects to our society of such a radical change to the definition of legal marriage. There is a ton of sociological literature (currently being buried) that shows the negative consequences on children who lack fathers or mothers. But, with gay marriage, it is built-in that a child will be raised without a father or a mother. It will also be hard for a child to learn the true meaning of sexuality when the closest example before him or her is so different from the natural law. You are also denying the intimidating methods pro-gay activists have used, against Mormons (in California) or Catholics (legal challenges, etc). It is not possible to hold a fully Catholic position on this issue and keep a job in Hollywood or many other occupations. Christians who believe gay marriage is bad for society are continuously pressured to keep their opinions to themselves or face societal intimidation.

I used to think that you followed the teaching of the Church in general apart from some severe difficulties with respect to contraception, and that you argued that the procreative component of marriage could be met by looking at the marriage in total and not every event. But, in recent posts you have argued for the Church to change her position on gay marriage (not just civil marriage) and you have strongly endorsed others who have argued for it, throwing procreation and even normal sexual relations out the window. So, I wonder if your arguments against Humanae Vitae etc., really matter any more, since you have strayed so far from the Church in the natural law. But, if I am wrong on the latter, please explain.

Paul Ferris | 3/4/2014 - 9:21am

Tim, There is a ton of research that shows that children of divorce suffer long term consequences. When I was growing up Catholic lawyers could not involve themselves in civil divorce. Jesus says more about divorce than gays. Do you think that society should outlaw divorce ? Even the Catholic Church has compromised. Annulments are for the most part divorce Catholic style. You really don't think that a person who had seven children and was married 31 years was never married in the first place? She was granted an annulment which according to the church she was never married. Another reason the Catholic Church lost respect is on your favorite subject...contraception. For a few bishops to claim that providing birth control pills to insured is against religious freedom is dubious considering almost 90% have used some form of contraception during their fertile years. Worldwide polls (for which you have made very clear you have no respect) show that Catholics strongly support responsible parenthood. The Magisterium has an important role to play in the Church but the Church includes the whole People of God as stated in Lumen Gentium. I understand you will disagree with this so I am putting you on notice that I will not argue with you like we did in Life Lessons. This is my last post on this subject so if you want know that you will have the last word here.

I think what Michael is saying is that we live in a pluralistic society. This means compromise. If a photographer can refuse to take pictures of a gay marriage, what is to keep a plumber or electrician from refusing service to a gay household because they are doing you know what in that home. I am sympathetic on a feeling level for the photographer. In my job last summer I met with a gay man who referred to his husband. I confess it felt a little strange but I got over it and did my job. Viva the pluralistic society.

We already fought the fight on contraception with you. One of your stock beliefs is that a difference of opinion on this issue leads invariably to change of beliefs on others. Just because you keep repeating the same point doesn't make it true. I have a suggestion for you....the Vatican is a country. Why don't you go live there. I think you will find it more to your liking than the pluralistic USA. But even there I doubt if you would be satisfied. Pope Francis is giving you right wing Catholics fits. Go Francis.

Tim O'Leary | 3/4/2014 - 8:51pm

Paul - you jest ("This is my last post"). In any case, contraception is hardly my favorite subject. I only even discuss it when someone disses the Church for not agreeing with the joys of self-imposed sterility. Anyway, I agree with you that children are hurt by divorce and our civilization is less nurturing with it. And it has had consequences beyond just the family (but you already heard my domino theory).

You might be surprised to hear that I do not propose to have the beautiful and god-given Catholic moral code enshrined into secular law. I think Catholics should propose the truth but not impose it (to use Saint Pope John Paul II's usage). It was a very bad mistake to the evangelical mission in ages past to try to convert by force or intimidation. It was against the very nature of the Good News and freedom of conscience, which I very much believe in, just as I hold that the Church should be allowed to teach with freedom. I do note that so-called proponents of freedom of conscience go AWAL when it comes to participating in a gay marriage ceremony or when the government wants to force a church or a person to directly pay for things they believe are immoral.

As to living in the Vatican. A beautiful place to visit, but I like the open range. Or as SS recalled, "a voice crying in the wilderness." Go Francis!

Michael Barberi | 2/23/2014 - 9:26pm


On the issue of same sex marriage, I am not arguing that the Catholic Church should change its teachings. I do believe that they should rethink the issue based on recent scholarly research by many Catholic theologians. However, my comment refers to civil unions and civil marriage, not church marriage. This issue is a legal issue.

While you state that evidence exists that shows negative consequences on children who lack a father and mother, there are studies by the American Psychological Association that found no negative consequences on children who have same sex parents versus children of heterosexual couples.

Also, orphaned children do not have a father and mother. It is not better that such children have same sex parents than no parents at all?

As for my arguments about other sexual ethical issues, each issue is argued separately and do not depend on any other issue, although some principles can apply to many issues. I have not strayed far from the Church as you claim. I find your judgmental statement insulting. For that matter, most Catholics would fit your definition of straying far from the Church in the natural law. I'll let my spiritual priestly advisor and God guide my moral thinking and salvation.

Tim, I prefer not to argue with you for our conversations twist and turn and eventually become far too negative for my style of respectful argumentation.

Joe Smith | 2/23/2014 - 11:15pm

Is not the fundamental purpose of marriage for government to protect the female and the children because they are the more vulnerable party in the family relationship arrangement?

Joe Smith | 2/23/2014 - 11:13pm


"...the American Psychological Association that found no negative consequences on children who have same sex parents versus children of heterosexual couples."

You don't really believe this is a legitimate study, do you? Please be careful what "studies" you accept as true. Follow the money, in other words. See who is funding the "studies".

Do you also know that the American Psychological Association once deemed gays as mentally ill too? It wasn't that long ago.

Michael Barberi | 2/26/2014 - 3:12pm


I think it is naive to say with certainty that the American Psychological Association's conclusion about the children of same-sex parents and those of heterosexual parents, are merely the result of funding from progressive groups. You cannot turn every conclusion, study or professional opinion that disagrees with your religious beliefs, into false and unsubstantiated arguments without offering compelling and convincing evidence.

We may have to agree to disagree about this.

God bless.

Tim O'Leary | 2/20/2014 - 2:19pm

It is probably not surprising that this administration would try to confine freedom of religion to freedom of worship, and institutional "faith" to "freedom of conscience." As Orwell pointed out some time ago, politicians have long used word redefinition to expand their power. So, the word abortion was hidden behind "pro-choice", homosexual activity was hidden behind "gay" and "Obamacare" was sold as health care when it really meant insurance.

No doubt we will soon hear from the President that "If you like your religion, you can keep your religion."

Marie Rehbein | 2/20/2014 - 2:54pm

"Obamacare" was coined in an attempt to disparage The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. It did not come from the Obama administration. Similarly, politicians did not coin the terms "gay" and "pro-choice".

No doubt you will soon hear nothing from your President on the matter of whether religious freedom means freedom of individual conscience versus freedom to worship versus freedom from religion versus a right to impose your religious beliefs on others. However, you should be hearing from Jesus that one gives unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's.

Tim O'Leary | 2/20/2014 - 5:57pm

Marie - It was political activists who coined both the gay and pro-choice terms. While Obama used to be proud of the term (he used it in many speeches when he thought it would be popular), his preferred nomenclature, and those of his Democratic allies in the Congress is the "Affordable Care Act." Affordable is a good Orwellian term in the current context.

On the President's substitution of freedom of religion with freedom of worship, see this article.

Marie Rehbein | 2/20/2014 - 7:23pm

I am having a hard time believing, Tim, that you don't get paid to comment here. Nevertheless, the PPAFCA was named long before the term Obamacare was coined by its opponents.

Tim O'Leary | 2/20/2014 - 10:45pm

Sadly, Marie. I don't get a dime. It's all pro bono - a voice crying in the web wilderness.

PPAFCA is not a very catchy acronym. And it's missing the B for bankrupt.

Marie Rehbein | 2/21/2014 - 9:17am

I think you might want to judge after it has been in effect for a while. (I am supposing that your judgment is not literal) I suppose you also feel this way about Medicare and Medicaid.

Tim O'Leary | 2/20/2014 - 2:21pm

Tom - Not sure how this article relates to religious freedom (but who needs an excuse) but your link complains about adding an extension of 3,000 sq. ft to a 4,500 house for $500k? is this the best you can do? Did you post a link when Philadelphia's Archbishop Chaput got rid of the 12,600 Cardinal's residence with it's 9 acres? It was later bought by St. Joseph's university for $10M. Now that news!

Tim O'Leary | 2/21/2014 - 5:53pm

Tom - Still not a religious freedom issue. But, since you persist, here is the response of the Archdiocese. Apparently, the Archbishop has lived with 4 other priests in the Cathedral rectory.

Still, should you feel it helpful to your spiritual life, you are perfectly entitled to complain about any Catholic who has a house with 5 bedrooms and 3 bathrooms. As long as you and yours have far less. Or maybe, not (see Luke 18:11)?

Joe Smith | 2/19/2014 - 10:55pm

Oh...and one more thing....

The perfect presidential candidate for "progressives" would be black, female, lesbian, and Harvard educated...from a poor background. Watch out. This candidate would be unbeatable. "Progressives" would be foaming at the mouth with excitement for such an ideal candidate. You know, it's all about their holy trinity.

Louis Candell | 2/20/2014 - 9:23am


What bothers me is your seeming preoccupation with sex. Why? What does it matter to you if gays want to have a civil marriage ceremony? It should be of no concern to you since it does you no harm and has no affect on your own heterosexual marriage (assuming you are married). Admittedly, although I do not object to civil marriage ceremonies for gays nor do I judge those living in same sex relationships, I will admit that I've grown tired of hearing and reading so much about LGBT issues. I simply take consolation by reminding myself that others' sexual preferences are of no concern to me - and they shouldn't be of concern to you. The biggest reason we have so much emphasis on LGBT issues is that the religious right keeps objecting so vociferously. Constant wailing about the perceived sinfulness of LGBT proponents only causes them to exert more pushback. Find something more productive with which to occupy yourself. Self-righteousnes is an extremely unattractive trait whether practiced by the right or the left. Our first obligation is to save our own souls; not everybody else's soul.