Freedom to Practice One’s Own Religion?

I remember being told as a child that the reason to study history was that history has a tendency to repeat itself. In other words, if we don’t learn the lessons of the past, we’ll repeat them again in the future.

While I think there are many reasons to learn and understand history, the value of learning from the past has obvious merit for a particular issue today. Regularly, news reports and court cases attempt to address what’s commonly called the freedom of religion. The basic concept is that each person is free to practice whatever religion that person chooses to practice. In the United States, this freedom is a Constitutional guarantee found in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” In other Western countries, there are similar laws about the freedom to practice religion. Internationally, the freedom of belief and religious practice is generally viewed as a fundamental human right.

Here’s the problem: what is the practice of religion? Is the practice of religion simply a matter of private prayer and attending gatherings in the house of worship of your choice? Does the practice of religion include the choices we each make day to day in our lives with others? For example, does the practice of religion include the refusal to participate in professional duties because that duty is in conflict with a personally held belief?

Shortly after the Supreme Court decision in Roe versus Wade in 1973, the case which declared that right to privacy as stated in the 14th amendment extended to a woman’s decision to medically terminate a pregnancy, some medical providers insisted that for moral and ethical reasons they could not participate in the termination of a pregnancy. Generally, doctors, nurses, and related health professional were not required to participate in the termination of pregnancies if they had a personal religious belief opposing the termination of pregnancy.

Later, new medications became available that caused the termination of a pregnancy. These medications could be obtained with a prescription from a doctor. In response, some pharmacists began to claim that they could not fill prescriptions from doctors for these medications. It was the perspective of these pharmacists that by filling these prescriptions they were assisting in an abortion.

In time, this same logic has been used by professionals and businesses in providing services to openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals and couples. I am most familiar with this from teaching in graduate programs in mental health for over twenty years. Periodically, students openly state that they cannot work with an openly gay or lesbian individual because of their religious beliefs. The religious freedom rationale continues to be applied more broadly. Recently, a gay couple who visited a restaurant in rural Texas, was told, “We don’t serve fags here,” while a baker in Colorado refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple.

My question is this: is the freedom to practice one’s religion sufficient reason to deny a person legal medical care or discriminate against them in a professional service or other business setting?

Growing up in rural Western Pennsylvania, I was aware of the many Mennonites who lived near my family’s home. Because of their religious beliefs, Mennonites are conscientious objectors to war. They do not fight in war because of religious beliefs. They also help others (non-Mennonites to officially file documents as conscientious objectors to war.) Their religious cousins, the Amish, who live in Central Pennsylvania, are also conscientious objectors. These groups are free to practice their religion. Both groups have had to accommodate how they live because of their beliefs. Both groups recognize that to follow their religion, there are sacrifices to be made. Refusing military service during time of war has resulted in some Mennonites serving time in jail. The Mennonites and Amish don’t seek employment in a variety of settings because the work could lead to a conflict with their beliefs. Ultimately, I think the members of these religions have it right: if your religion prevents you from participating in various legal activities, then it is the believer’s responsibility to make choices to keep them from being in those professions or jobs.

From this perspective, when I’ve been told by graduate students that they won’t work with clients who are gay or lesbian, I remind them of the ethical requirements of the mental health professions. All clients are to be treated regardless of race, nationality, belief, gender, or sexual orientation. The ethical codes require this. I then explain that if someone can’t follow the code of ethical conduct for the profession, then that person should not be in the profession. The world doesn’t need professionals who refuse to follow all or some of the ethical codes of their profession. The failure to follow the code of ethics for any profession results in harm to clients.

Of course, the response always is, “But it’s my religion!” A person is free to believe whatever they choose to believe. But a person is not free to impose that belief on others in a professional role when the values of that profession are at odds with their beliefs. Nor is a professional free to claim to follow the ethics of a profession and decide to opt out because of religious views. It would be better to hand in your license and find another line of work. I believe that should be true for medical professionals, mental health professionals, or any other professional with a code of ethical conduct that governs the profession.

(Please note: I have never taught in a graduate program for “Christian counselors.” Christian counseling programs are not based on the ethical guidelines of the American Counseling Association or the American Psychological Association. If someone wants a degree in “Christian counseling” that doesn’t meet the ethical codes of the major professional organizations, that is the person’s choice. But such a person should not seek a professional license that requires them to engage in practices contrary to their personal beliefs.)

What about the restaurant and bakery I mentioned? There are no ethical codes. Instead, states and municipalities have ordinances governing businesses and the issuing of business licenses. If a business owner can’t follow the local laws, that person shouldn’t be in business. To that end, at trial the baker in Colorado was told that if he baked wedding cakes for heterosexual couples, the non-discrimination law requires that he also bake cakes for any couple who orders a wedding cake. The baker’s response was to no longer bake wedding cakes as part of his business. It is my opinion that his was the correct solution. If a person’s religion prevents them from selling wedding cakes to gay couples, the ethical solution is to not sell wedding cakes rather than to discriminate against a class of people (i.e., gay or lesbian couples).

I take faith and belief seriously. Further, a person of faith – or should I say a person of “good faith” – doesn’t expect others to bend to the will of her or his own beliefs. Instead, if the practice of my religion requires that I do or not do something, then I need to make appropriate life choices that will enable me to live out that religious belief in a way that is ethical and respects laws governing fair treatment among all people. It seems to me that this part of the “Golden Rule” which is enshrined in some form in all the great religions of the world: to do to others as you would have them do to you. In other words, don’t impose your beliefs on others if you don’t want others to impose their beliefs on you.

What does all this have to do with a history lesson? Is history repeating itself? I believe it is. Arguments about the practice of religion within American society took place early in our nation’s history. Not only were there great debates about these issues among our forbearers, but in 1978 the US Supreme Court, in the case of Reynolds vs. the US, included this statement in its ruling:

“it is declared ‘that it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government for its officers to interfere [only] when [religious] principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order.’”

In other words, one is free to practice their religion as long as such practice isn’t clearly contrary to the peace and good order of society. In my mind, breaking ethical codes for professions or violating laws of equal protection are acts against peace and good order. Or to put it even more plainly: one’s right to practice their beliefs ends when the good of others or society is harmed.

Recognizing that my life has been formed, shaped, and inspired by the teachings of Jesus, when I encounter someone who says that they must reject association with or service to another because of religious beliefs, the words of Jesus come immediately to mind: “Whatever you do to the least ones, you do to me” (Matthew 15:40). While that is a fundamental ethical principle from my own religion, I simultaneously need to respect that the laws of the country in which I live. The United States has consistently taken the position that each person is free to believe or not believe any faith or religion. Others cannot restrict that fundamental right because they disagree with the belief, values, and practice of religion by those who are different from them.

© 2014, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

Be Sociable, Share!
This entry was posted in Spirituality and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Freedom to Practice One’s Own Religion?

  1. Rachel Rogel says:

    I agree with you! The one argument I’ve heard that I have some sympathy for is that some individuals may have invested much time and money in a career only to find that the requirements change and they must either leave or violate their conscience. People who went into pharmacy before “the morning after” pill was even dreamed up, for example. Or someone who has worked as a county clerk for years and then is required to process ssm applications.

    As you say, though, sometimes following our beliefs requires sacrifices. I think that it would be dangerous if, as a society we allowed people in those situations to deny services to those who need them. Maybe, though, we can allow them to move to a different position…. I don’t know.

  2. Rosalind says:

    I nearly decided to study medicine. Had I done so, ‘freedom of belief’ issue that, in today’s society, might have lost my license as a surgeon would be my inability to abort the healthy fetus of a healthy woman. It’s not even just about belief or religion, it’s deeper than that, and society is threatening to remove from me the freedom to hold this inner truth and deny my right to carry it.

  3. Lou says:


    Thanks for taking time to comment.

    I agree that there aren’t simple solutions to some of the specific circumstances in which people find themselves when there is a conflict between personal beliefs and professional duties. Some years ago, a corrections officer was seeing me for spiritual direction. A particularly difficult dilemma was that job advancement would require working on death row. This person couldn’t support capital punishment but to follow an up-wardly mobile career, assisting in capital punishment would have been required. After several months of discernment, the decision was to return to school for a master’s degree and pursue a different career. It was a difficult choice, but one that enabled this person to live with integrity.


  4. Lou says:


    I appreciate that you took time to comment and share your experience. One reality of a diverse society is that people do hold deeply values that are in conflict with others. The termination of a pregnancy by abortion is one of those conflicts. There are well-founded moral and ethical perspectives that impinge on abortion. One of the challenges for society is finding ways that people with differing moral and ethical beliefs can live and work together while also acknowledging and respecting those differences. That difficulty becomes more pronounced when we hold positions and insist that we are the only ones who could be right. I think that’s what has occurred in the positions labeled “right to life” and “right for choice.”


  5. Lou, you have clearly and eloquently stated the case wonderfully without all the inflammatory rhetoric normally associated with these arguments! I find it so disturbing that people who ardently claim to follow Jesus can turn on fellow human beings with such a vile and spiteful attitude, yet I see it on a daily basis. While I may be in disagreement with some of the things going on today, and I will counsel wherever I can to take the high moral ground, I cannot simply impose my personal beliefs upon another. Thank you for your comment!

  6. Sharon Wilson says:

    I would have to disagree with you on this. The freedom to practice our religion (at least as Catholics and other faiths) goes beyond our private prayer and Sunday service. It is what we believe. If the hospital or adoption agency is Catholic – they will not be forming abortions or placing a child in a same sex marriage home. As far as therapists and counseling – I believe that a therapist would not turn away a person who was in a same sex relationship but would council them to live a a chaste life as we believe.
    A doctor of conscience should not perform abortions or prescribe the morning after pill. What may have happened if the Doctors in Natzi Germany refused the horrific experiments they were asked to do. We would see them as heros. The baker has a right to refuse the making of wedding cakes in the same way that the Jewish deli owner doesn’t need to sell pork. See more here:

  7. Lou says:


    Your comments clearly embody Benedict’s emphasis on hospitality. Thanks for your comment.


  8. Lou says:


    I agree that faith and our spiritual practice should inform and be integrated with every aspect of life. I don’t believe I ever suggested otherwise.

    I agree that a Kosher deli owner shouldn’t sell pork. But selling wedding cakes to one couple and not to another is a different matter, particularly when that decision is based on a couple’s class or status. That’s comparable to African-Americans not being served at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in the 1950’s.

    I am very familiar with Roman Catholic moral teaching — probably more than you would imagine. Fundamentally, I find the application of concepts of Divine Law and Natural Law in philosophy and theology to be a faulty basis for critical thought. However, I do have to agree with Aquinas on both abortion and homosexuality. Aquinas did not view a fetus as a human person. Similarly, having observed homosexual behaviors in other species, he also concluded it could be natural. Today, we know that it is part of the natural way of things in a way he did not.

    Thanks for your comment. We do disagree, but that is the nature of topics like this.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *