Commentary

Religious Liberty, a Benefit to Religious and Nonreligious Alike

By | April 2, 2015 | 9:40 AM EDT

Flags and signs are held during a rally for religious freedom organized in part by the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia in front of Independence Hall, Friday, March 23, 2012 in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Unfortunately, amidst many of today’s debates about the efficacy of religious freedom, such as the debate over Indiana’s religious freedom law, a pernicious underlying assumption exists that religious freedom is only for the religious. Such a belief is as dangerous as it is false. Religious freedom benefits all of us, though many unfortunately do not recognize it.

Certainly it is true that religious freedom benefits people of faith, but it also greatly benefits society as a whole. The same is true of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. We don’t have a free press to benefit the journalism industry, but all of society. And we defend free speech not to protect any particular speaker or topic, but to safeguard free dialogue for all of America.

Unfortunately, caught up in the fray of debates about religious freedom and legislation that guarantees it, we lose sight of who actually benefits from it. For example, the Judeo-Christian tradition benefits a diverse range of people and society as a whole, not just Christian and Jewish believers. Many of the greatest beneficiaries of religious freedom are the nonreligious.

Mother Teresa is but one of many great examples of that fact. Was the civil freedom that Mother Teresa and her ministry partners enjoyed something that primarily benefitted them, or those that they served? Put another way, do her ministries (which continue to this day) mostly benefit the ministries themselves, or the millions that they serve in over 600 communities in over 130 countries around the world?

The answer is the latter, and when we consider the application of this principle to our country, we see more clearly how we all benefit from religious freedom. Some statistics show us that one in five hospital patients are treated in religious facilities. These facilities are non-profit and exist to carry out the biblical mission of caring for the sick. As we asked with Mother Teresa, who benefits more—the non-profit hospitals themselves or the millions of patients that they lovingly serve?

What about homeless shelters? Homelessness is an important issue, regularly serving as the source of media focus and policy debates. One report, analyzing statistics from the National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients, estimates that faith-based non-profits run about a third of all homeless programs, including most of the food-based programs. Does the religious freedom that allows these faith-based programs to operate benefit the programs themselves, or the millions that they serve?

Consider education, where the Council for American Private Education estimates that 10 percent of K-12 students are in private schools, approximately 80 percent of which are religious. Faith-based, private schools reduce the overall tax burden related to public education. So, again, religious freedom benefits more than just the religious.

Now apply these principles to every realm and type of social service that freedom of religion allows to operate in this country—adoption services, prison ministries, counseling services, pregnancy resource centers, suicide prevention, drug and alcohol rehabilitation and treatment, assisted living centers, financial planning and debt ministries, child-friendly radio and television programming, and so many other things. I ask again—does the religious freedom that gives these ministries life benefit the ministries themselves, or the millions that they lovingly serve?

And even if you have never been the direct recipient of the services of such a program, you are nonetheless a beneficiary of it. Nobody denies the importance and need for these ministries and the many social problems that they help address. If these ministries are not free to operate and follow their religious mission, the burden will be greater on all of us—the taxpayers—to pick up the slack. At a minimum, religious freedom is money in your pocket.

So, as debates continue about the efficacy of religious freedom, we should remember what it is and is not about. Religious freedom isn’t necessarily about whether you are, should, can, or may be religious, and it certainly isn’t about whether you agree with any particular religious belief. When considering religious freedom and its wonderful history in our country, we should all ask who it benefits and whether it makes our communities better places to live.

The record of religious freedom clearly demonstrates that it benefits all of us—the religious and nonreligious alike.

Austin R. Nimocks is senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, which has provided legal counsel on religious freedom and conscience protection laws to federal and state legislators nationwide, including Indiana and Arkansas.

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