Religious freedom is in the limelight. In recent years, religiously inspired violence has slaughtered thousands around the world and provoked calls for the repression of adherents of various faiths. Domestically, we have shrill debates: Should bakers be compelled to serve at gay weddings when they have religious objections to doing so? Should government officials be compelled to facilitate gay marriages when they have religious objections to doing so? Should employers have to provide workers with medical insurance for practices that they disapprove of on religious grounds? Prayer at town meetings, zoning exemptions for church property, embryonic stem cell research, workplace dress codes, beards on prisoners, recognition of religious organizations at state universities – a stream of contentious battles seems to pit religious freedom against equal protection. The liberation of some, many charge, is coming at the expense of others (e.g., his freedom to marry versus her freedom to practice her faith). Each side digs in—some with lawsuits, others with legislation. In 2015 alone, eighty-seven religious refusal bills were introduced in twenty-eight states.
The aim of this paper is to step back from these controversies so as to consider the larger value at stake. Its question: What good is religious freedom? Why is it valuable? What is the source of its goodness and what is the benefit of respecting it? What does religious freedom add to a properly governed society?