Let’s Talk: Religious Freedom

“Religious Freedom.” It’s a buzz phrase. We hear it a lot in political arguments about all kinds of things: the death penalty, abortion, LGBT rights, etc. But when we use religious freedom as a defense, we need to make sure we’re using it correctly. And in order to do that, we need to really understand what ‘religious freedom’ actually is.

So where does religious freedom come from? Well, when America was being formed, there were a lot of pretty radical ideas going around. One of which was the freedom to practice whatever religion one might choose without persecution. Today, this doesn’t seem so radical. And it shouldn’t! It is important to have faith! And it is more important to be free to practice one’s faith unimpeded. But there is a large difference when it comes to being free to practice your faith without persecution, versus using your faith as a crutch to persecute others.

Let me explain what I mean, and I’m going to use an analogy that hits pretty close to home for me: civil rights for LGBT Americans. Let’s say a young trans girl wants to use the girls’ restroom at her school. She’s in 6th grade, struggling to accept herself (as we all do at that age), and all she wants is to be able to pee in peace like the other girls. But instead, the school tells her that she has to use a different restroom because a group of parents sent a letter to the school complaining about a ‘violation of their religious freedom’. What exactly do the parents mean by this? Violating their religious freedom? But this little girl isn’t doing anything to bother you at all! “Nonsense!” they say. “The school is forcing our young Christian daughters to be in the presence of sin and a sinner! This violates our religious freedom!”

But I have to ask these parents, “What freedom do you think is being encroached here?” Because no one is forcing these parents, or their children for that matter, to accept this young trans girl. You are still free to think she’s a sinner. What you are not free to do, however, is deny her the right to be treated like a basic human being. Because religious freedom is the right to practice your faith without persecution. It is not the right to persecute others based on your faith.

Because – and this is the important nugget here – your beliefs do not matter outside of you. And I know that this might sound very insensitive. Dismissive, even. But believe me when I say that couldn’t be further from the truth. I respect all people’s beliefs. Even the ones I don’t agree with. Especially the ones I don’t agree with. To me, religion, faith, they’re both very personal things. And finding them is a journey that everyone must go through. Some people find them in religion, others find them in science and logic (like myself). Some people find them in both, or neither. But everyone has a faith system in some capacity. And they are all valid. They all help us as people.

And I understand that when you find something that works for you, you get excited and you want other people to feel the way you do, so you share your beliefs. But in the end, it’s all personal. And just as you have the right to practice your faith, I have the right to not practice it. Or the right to practice something else.

Is this a personal attack on you? Of course not. But if you want the world to be tolerant of you and the things you hold dear, you have to be willing to shell out some tolerance in turn. You don’t have to agree with those opposing beliefs. Hell, I personally don’t think you even need to entertain the notion. But you have to let them be free to practice what they believe too. Because religious freedom is a two-way street.

“Whoah there, Dany. You’re getting off track.” You’re right, dear reader. I apologize. It’s just that I get so very worked up over the issue of freedom of religion! But you’re right, let’s get back to it.

So, what about that little trans girl who just wants to pee? What should we do for her?

Well, I’d like to perform a little experiment. And this could get pretty…upsetting, but I need you to bear with me, dear reader. Let’s reread the story above, except replace “trans girl” with “black girl” and all the mentions of her being a “sinner” to her being “inferior”. Go on, I’ll wait.

Wow. Pretty offensive, no? Sounds like a scene out of an eye-opening docudrama set in the 1960s, right? Well, bingo.

The same tactics being employed against LBGT americans are the ones that were used against african-americans during the Civil Rights movement. And now, looking back, it seems absurd that white people wanted to be segregated because they thought they were somehow superior. Religious freedom was a pretty common defense in the Civil Right movement, in fact!

But nowadays, if someone tried to stop an african-american from using the bathroom because it “violated their religious freedom”, we’d tell them to “cut the shit” and label them a racist. Because that seems absurd to us. Just because someone looks different doesn’t mean they should have to be heckled when they want to pee. Black people deserve rights! Black lives matter!

And of course they do! But so do queer lives. And all lives. Everyone matters!

Because, in the end, we can’t claim “freedom and rights for all” and then deny those things to specific groups. If you have religious freedom to think I’m a sinner, then I have religious freedom to think you’re wrong. But I can’t force you to believe otherwise, and you can’t force me to pee somewhere else.

*Man, this took me so long to write. I spent like 3 weeks trying to get this one written, ’cause I kept getting so worked up and didn’t know what direction to take or how to reach the destination I wanted. I apologize if this one is a bit shorter than usual.

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