An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Debate Grows Over What Religious Freedom Means


The principle of religious freedom in America used to be a bipartisan issue. Twenty-five years ago, Congress approved the Religious Freedom Restoration Act almost unanimously. But that consensus has unraveled. Our religion correspondent Tom Gjelten sees a growing debate over what religious freedom actually means.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Religious freedom is part of America's foundation because it was colonized by people who experienced religious persecution. Baptists and others wanted freedom from the semi-official Anglican church establishment. Later on, Seventh-day Adventists were among those pushing for religious liberty. They had a faith tradition of their own, though their places of worship looked like other Christian churches.


SAMUEL DADE: Yeah. I mean, it's mainstream.

GJELTEN: In Orlando, Fla., Pastor Samuel Dale (ph) shows me around his Solid Rock Seventh-day Adventist Church.

DADE: I mean, if you were to show up on a Sabbath, much of the liturgy and everything is going to be identical. The only difference is we hold church on Saturday.

GJELTEN: Adventists take seriously the biblical story that God made the world in six days and rested on the seventh. So they do the same. One of Pastor Dale's longtime congregants, Darrell Patterson (ph), is here. He points to his pew.

DARRELL PATTERSON: I can tell you precisely, my wife and I sit right over here, behind...

GJELTEN: Patterson is close to Pastor Dale because the minister stood by him when he needed support. His story begins in 2005, when he interviewed for a job at Walgreens.

PATTERSON: I was completely upfront with them that I observed the Sabbath, that the Sabbath was important to me.

GJELTEN: Patterson got the job. Six years went by without a problem. And then one day, he was assigned to work on a Saturday.

PATTERSON: If you were to come to my house on the Sabbath, you would find that our house is in order, there's a peaceful, serene atmosphere. My wife and my family, we spend time in prayer. We sing hymns together.

GJELTEN: Patterson skipped work that Saturday, returning the following Monday.

PATTERSON: They called me into the office, and they basically told me that I was terminated.

GJELTEN: Patterson sued with the backing of his church. Walgreens says doing more to accommodate Patterson's religion would have imposed an undue hardship on its business. The U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether to hear the case. In 1963, the court ruled in favor of another Seventh-day Adventist fired after she declined to work Saturdays. But in 1990, the court ruled against a Native American, named Smith, who was fired after using peyote in a religious ritual. It was that Smith decision that led to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Among the sponsors, a first-term Democrat from New York, Jerrold Nadler.


JERROLD NADLER: Unless the Smith decision's overturned, the fundamental religious right of all Americans to keep the Sabbath, observe religious dietary laws, to worship as their consciences dictate, will remain threatened.

GJELTEN: Twenty-five years after Nadler made that speech, Republicans are claiming religious freedom for their own purposes. Democrats, in response, now shy away from it. What's happened is that LGBT rights, including marriage equality, have become an issue, overshadowing the old religious freedom consensus. Conservative Christians now say that such practices as same-sex weddings go against biblical teaching. They've argued that religious freedom should mean they can't be forced to accommodate something they don't believe in. Senator Ted Cruz made it a campaign issue when he ran for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Here he was on CBS's "Face The Nation."


TED CRUZ: We're a nation that was founded on religious liberty and the liberal intolerance we see trying to persecute those who, as a matter of faith, follow a biblical definition of marriage, is fundamentally wrong.

GJELTEN: As conservatives focused the religious freedom issue almost exclusively around issues of sexuality and marriage, Democrats turned away. They're backing an Equality Act, which would bar discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. One provision specifically says the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, often abbreviated as RFRA, cannot apply in these discrimination cases. Jerrold Nadler, originally a RFRA co-sponsor, this year co-sponsored the Equality Act. When the bill came up on the House floor, another co-sponsor, Democrat Bobby Scott of Virginia, explained why it may seem progressives have turned cool on the Religious Freedom Act.


BOBBY SCOTT: RFRA was originally enacted to serve as a safeguard for religious freedom but recently has been used as a sword to cut down the civil rights of too many individuals.

GJELTEN: Meanwhile, groups that have seen themselves in the middle on the religious freedom issue, like the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, are dismayed.

HOLLY HOLLMAN: When you say you work for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, they want to know, what kind of religious liberty?

GJELTEN: Holly Hollman is the group's general counsel.

HOLLMAN: It is more difficult to get a broad coalition on religious freedom efforts now. People have a bad taste in their mouth about what they think the other side thinks of religious freedom.

GJELTEN: As to who's to blame, Hollman is evenhanded.

HOLLMAN: It is unfortunate that some on the right will use religious freedom in order to advance a particular partisan issue. I think it is problematic on the left to cede arguments about religious freedom to just say people just use that now to advance an anti-LGBT perspective.

GJELTEN: The Seventh-day Adventists also fault both sides. Todd McFarland, the church's associate general counsel, says it's become harder lately to get Democratic support.

TODD MCFARLAND: Democrats used to feel like they needed to be on the right side of religious liberty, and they don't anymore. And when that is no longer a value, that's a problem.

GJELTEN: But McFarland also criticizes those conservatives who neglect the part of the First amendment that bars government from endorsing a religion. They have pushed for prayer and Bible readings in public schools, which Seventh-day Adventists oppose.

MCFARLAND: We are not trying to see the U.S. government impose any type of ideology. We have long believed that government and church need to stay in their separate spheres.

GJELTEN: The First Amendment is sometimes seen as contradictory - is the government in favor of religion or against it? But it can also be read as one, that free exercise of religion is guaranteed only if it applies to all faiths. In Orlando, Fla., Darrell Patterson is now working as a mental health therapist. His campaign for the right to rest on the Sabbath no longer has to do with his own work situation.

PATTERSON: It's about other people that are going to come after me that deserve to be able to practice their religious faith and conviction without putting their livelihoods in jeopardy.

GJELTEN: And that's a fight he wants to take to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.