Recent quantities of ink spilled and blogs shared over the topic of religious freedom invite the question: What is it we mean when we talk about this particular issue? In America's simplest terms, religious freedom means that no one can force you to go to church, and no one can keep you from going to church. Our First Amendment prohibits Congress from making any "law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." We are free to practice the religion of our birth or choosing within the parameters of civil society. We may, for example, request a day off from work to honor a holy day specific to our creed, or take part in a religious fast, or refrain from using electricity, or walk around with ashes on our foreheads on a winter Wednesday. We can quite literally wear our religion in the form of a habit, or a necklace, or a robe, or a collar, or a beard or a veil. Whether we think of our country as a melting pot, or a salad bowl, or some other culinary metaphor, we understand that many religions are thrown into the mix of our national identity.
As Americans, however, we are also familiar with the tyranny of the majority. When our religious tradition coincides with the beliefs of a vast number of our fellow Americans, we don't really concern ourselves with the concept of religious freedom. We live in personal harmony with the mainstream, which has been Christian since our early days as a nation. For some people, unfortunately, freedom of religion has come to mean freedom of my religion. If your beliefs are not in sync with mine, we have a problem.
A sudden problem. With same-sex marriage becoming legal in state after state at a dizzying pace, some Americans feel that their religious beliefs are threatened by the civil marriages of others. The recent wedding cake dilemma in Indiana has pushed the pitfalls of religious freedom in front of our national consciousness. Some states have passed laws that would, for example, allow a baker to refuse to bake a wedding cake for a gay or lesbian couple. Although one assumes that the hypothetical engaged same-sex couple would patronize a bakery run by a more sympathetic baker, the fact remains that it is illegal to discriminate against your fellow citizens based on their race or gender or age or disability or income or sexual orientation. A business can refuse to serve a customer based on health code concerns or disruptive behavior, but not on his or her choice of a spouse.