FRC Fires Back at Right Wing Watch: What We Really Mean By ‘Religious Freedom’

Travis Weber | June 16, 2016 | 3:27pm EDT
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(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

In recent criticism of the Family Research Council, People for the American Way (through its blogging arm, “Right Wing Watch”) claimed (among other things) that it doesn’t “think that supporting religious freedom is the same thing as allowing individuals or corporations to use religious beliefs as a blanket justification for ignoring laws that promote the common good or taking actions that restrict the rights of other people.”

The author would do well to understand this is exactly what our long-held religious freedom law permits: “Individuals” can indeed “use religious beliefs” to “ignor[e] laws.” Under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), and to some degree under Free Exercise jurisprudence, a person is exempted from following a law if they have shown a sincere religious belief has been substantially burdened by that law. The government can still require the person to follow the law if there is a compelling interest behind the law and it is narrowly tailored. The only “blanket justification” here is in the mind of the Right Wing Watch. Even when it comes to clear exemptions like those in Mississippi’s Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act (HB 1523), they don’t “restrict the rights of other people.” If the author had read the law, he’d see that Sections 3(8)(a) and 8(2) are explicitly included to ensure this doesn’t happen. Other constitutional rights claims are adjudicated under the same basic strict scrutiny framework explained above, but we don’t hear complaints over the framework in other contexts.

The controversy only seems to develop when the religious freedom claim implicates human sexuality and then, only when it is asserted by Christians. It is at this point that opponents try to paint conservative Christians as disingenuously claiming support for religious freedom.

Unfortunately, there is one “inconvenient truth” for those pushing this false narrative: the actual policy of the Family Research Council and our allied organizations advocating for the freedom to express orthodox Christian views.

Our belief is that the free exercise of religion is a right which should be protected in a strong and robust manner for those of all faiths, in all contexts, both domestically and internationally. Indeed, our support for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) domestically and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) internationally should make this self-evident. RFRA protects all faiths, in all contexts, domestically, which the ICCPR does internationally. Just because the media chooses to focus on select issues doesn’t detract from this truth. Indeed, we have highlighted the blessings of religious freedom protections for those seeking to feed the homeless—something which doesn’t get much attention. We wrote in support of Muslim religious liberty claims and celebrated their wins as good for the state of religious liberty law, as we did for a Sikh seeking a facial hair accommodation in the military. We have advocated for Iraqis of all faiths to be able to exercise their human right of religious freedom, and not be assigned a National Identity Card with their religion on it. All people should be free to choose their faith, and live it out however they want. This is the view of the Family Research Council.

Of course, limits on religious freedom are needed for the protection of society and to accomplish important government interests, but that’s always been the case. RFRA has been around since 1993, and there has been little controversy over its limits. Indeed, the ACLU used to support the law. Despite claiming to support religious freedom, the ACLU now openly admits its policy preference for LGBT rights is why it can’t support RFRA. Meanwhile, FRC is painted as only supporting religious freedom in some cases. This, despite the fact that we—and not the ACLU—currently have an official policy of supporting the rights of conscience for those of all faiths.

The ACLU agrees with us on some religious freedom cases. But when that right conflicts with its other agendas, there are problems for the ACLU’s purported support of religious freedom. So as it also appears to be for People for the American Way. The ACLU and its allies are the ones who have compromised their religious freedom positions. Meanwhile, the FRC and our allies have a clear policy of support for religious freedom for all faiths, in all contexts. We choose to let the record speak for itself.

Travis Weber, Esq. is Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at the Family Research Council.

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