Saturday, April 2, 2016

The Freedom of Religion and Providing for the Common Good

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            Our fundamental freedoms begin with the freedoms of religion and speech, and balancing those individual freedoms with providing for the common good is a challenge for democracy.  It is the function of law to strike that balance by imposing restrictions on individual freedom that are necessary to provide for the common good; and in a democracy the law is shaped by standards of legitimacy (what is right and wrong) that are derived from religious beliefs.

            Religious standards of legitimacy can differ dramatically, and they can be a danger to democracy when they are considered to take precedence over secular law.  Religious fundamentalists who believe that homosexuality is a sin have argued that religious freedom allows them to disobey laws that prohibit discrimination against homosexuals and permit same-sex marriage.  Proposed laws in Georgia and North Carolina that would allow such discrimination as an extension of religious freedom have created predictable public controversy. 

            The Jeffersonian freedoms of religion and speech protected in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution do not extend to religious activities that violate the law.  Believers in a democracy can resort to civil disobedience to demonstrate their opposition to laws they consider immoral, as did Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his demonstration of love over law; but they must be willing to be punished for their disobedience and rely on popular support to change the law.    

            Apostasy and blasphemy laws prevalent in Islamic nations not only deny the freedoms of religion and speech but also allow religious acts that should be prohibited.  In Egypt the renowned poet, Fatma Naoot, was recently convicted of blasphemy for criticizing the Muslim practice of animal sacrifice.  While a practice of ancient Judaism as well as Islam, animal sacrifice is now prohibited in most jurisdictions for humanitarian reasons—all the more reason to eliminate apostasy and blasphemy laws to allow the freedoms of religion and speech.    

            The freedoms of religion and speech are now political priorities in libertarian democracies and protected by civil and human rights, but that has not always been the case.  Blasphemy laws existed in New England as late as the 19th century, and until recently Blue Laws prohibited business activities on Sunday in South Carolina. 

            Today U.S. foreign policy promotes the freedom of religion overseas and the Department of State annually reports violations.  Most offenders are Islamic nations with apostasy and blasphemy laws that are experiencing religious violence.  Promoting the freedoms of religion and speech overseas not only seeks to protect people from political oppression, but it would also protect U.S. national security interests.  If Islamic nations were to enforce the freedoms of religion and speech it would undermine the legitimacy of Islamist terrorist groups like ISIS.

            The above issues arise out of conflicting concepts of legitimacy and law relating to the freedoms of religion and speech, and present two contrasting objectives: To promote the freedoms of religion and speech while limiting those freedoms with laws that provide for the common good.  Democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law are at risk if believers can ignore those laws they consider to be in conflict with their religious beliefs.

            The standard of legitimacy applicable to such issues is the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors as ourselves, and our neighbors include those of other religions and of other nations.  The freedoms of religion and speech are fundamental rights that should be universal, but as with other individual rights they must be restricted by laws that provide for the common good, and exercised with moral restraints that respect religious and political differences. 

            God does not need apostasy and blasphemy laws as a protection from human insults, but God’s will is that we avoid using our freedoms to insult others—despite the example of Donald Trump who has thrived on insults and still garnered the support of many evangelical Christians.  True Christians avoid condemning those who do not share their beliefs and seek to reconcile with them, as do Muslims who consider the greatest commandment to be a common word of faith.  By way of contrast, Christian and Muslim fundamentalists who seek to divide and conquer by condemning those of other religions are the enemies of true freedom and democracy.   

References to previous blogs on related topics:          

See Religion and Reason, December 8, 2015; Faith and Freedom, December 15, 2014; The Greatest Commandment, January 11, 2015; Love Over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy, January 18, 2015; Is Religion Good or Evil?, February 15, 2015; Religion and Human Rights, February 22, 2015; Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, April 12, 2015; Religion, Human Rights and National Security, May 10, 2015; Moral Restraints on the Freedom of Speech, May 17, 2015; Freedom and Fundamentalism, August 2, 2015; Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities, August 9, 2015; How Religious Fundamentalism and Secularism Shape Politics and Human Rights, August 16, 2015; The Power of Freedom over Fear, September 12, 2015; Politics and Religious Polarization, September 20, 2015;  Who Is My Neighbor?, January 23, 2016; The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves, January 30, 2016; The American Religion and Politics in 2016, March 5, 2016; Religion, Race and the Deterioration of Democracy in America, March 12, 2016; and Religion, Democracy, Diversity and Demagoguery, March 26, 2016.

On the conviction of Fatma Naoot for blasphemy in Egypt for criticizing animal sacrifice, see

U.S. policy and developments on the freedom of religion worldwide are reported annually in The International Freedom of Religion Report issued by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor of the U.S. Department of State.  The following excerpts are from the Executive Summary of the Report at
Governments have the obligation to protect the human rights of all their citizens
and should promote an environment of tolerance and non-discrimination. In both
principle and action, where people are endangered, threatened, or face
discrimination, it is the responsibility of governments to safeguard universal
human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the right to life and the freedom
of conscience, belief, practice, worship, and to explain and change one’s faith. The
right to freedom of religion is found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,
the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and in states’ own
domestic laws. When governments fail to respect those laws, obligations and
standards, whether by deed or inaction, they legitimize and facilitate non-state
actors who persecute and discriminate against members of vulnerable religious
communities, nurture an environment of intolerance, and weaken the ties that
support peaceful and resilient societies.
In every region during the year [2014], discriminatory laws, repressive policies,
marginalization, and discriminatory application of laws had a negative impact on
the ability of groups and individuals to practice their faiths.
People cannot enjoy religious freedom unless they have both the right to express
their beliefs freely and change their religion without facing persecution, violence,
or discrimination. The threat and enforcement of blasphemy and apostasy laws
during the year had a significant impact on the ability of individuals to exercise
freedoms of expression and religion and resulted in deaths and imprisonment.
Individuals accused of violating Pakistan’s blasphemy laws continued to face
societal harassment, discrimination, and violence. On May 8 in Multan, Punjab, an
unidentified gunman shot and killed Rashid Rehman, an attorney representing
Junaid Hafeez, a university lecturer accused of blasphemy. On November 4, in
Kot Radha Kishan, Punjab, a mob of some 1,500 villagers accused a Christian
couple of blasphemy and burned them alive in a brick kiln. Media, government,
and civil society organizations reported the kiln owner accused the couple of
desecrating a Quran after the couple failed to repay a loan, and locked them in a
room while announcements from local mosques rallied the crowd. On October 16,
the Lahore High Court upheld the death sentence of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman
convicted of blasphemy four years ago. Bibi has been on death row since
November 2010, after a district court found her guilty of making derogatory
remarks about Prophet Mohammed during an argument. Her lawyers submitted an
appeal on November 24 to the Supreme Court.
The Freedom of Religion Report emphasized that U.S foreign policy and programs
support the freedom of religion as the …first of many inalienable rights enshrined in
the U.S. Constitution and other laws. We believe freedom of religion is a universal right
that governments should neither be able to grant nor withhold. The United States
strongly believes that protecting freedom of religion promotes mutual respect and
pluralism, and is essential to human dignity, robust civil society, and political and
economic development. Around the world, we focus on concrete, positive steps to
support government and civil society groups in combatting religious intolerance
and promoting respect for religious freedom for all.

The Easter 2016 bombing in Pakistan is just the latest incident of Islamist terrorism directed against Christians and its relationship to continuing popular support of blasphemy laws in Pakistan.  See

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