Government Against Religion: Religious Freedom in America


In his address to United States Congress in 1790, President George Washington declared that America’s “religion and morality” would be advanced by adherence to God’s commandments. He also proclaimed that “religion and morality are indispensable supports” to political prosperity. Washington understood that religion promotes good moral values and serves as a great source of guidance for every nation.

True religious freedom is the right to worship, speak, and act per one’s faith and conscience.

Religious freedom has been an essential component of human history. It dates back to the time where people first began practicing religion. As time passed, people started fighting for their right to practice religion freely and without any interference from a government or a ruler.

The First Amendment of the US Constitution declares that the government shall not prohibit the free exercise of religion.

But what does this mean?

Are there circumstances when it is suitable for the government to restrict religion?


Motivations for the government to limit religious freedom

Some people argue that religious freedom is a form of discrimination against other people’s beliefs. They believe that having a religion is a choice, and therefore allowing people to follow their faith means that they are forcing their beliefs onto others. Tolerance is generally a good thing, but tolerance can be taken too far when it comes to religion.

In some cases, religious freedom can be an excuse to discriminate against others in the name of your own beliefs. For example, an employer might cite their religious beliefs as a reason not to hire someone based on their race. While that may seem like blatant discrimination, some laws allow it if the employer cites their religious belief as to the reason for discrimination.

A recent example happened in New Mexico. The government ruled that a Christian-owned photography business violated the New Mexico Human Rights Act by refusing to photograph a same-sex commitment ceremony because of their religious beliefs. The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled 7-0 in favor of the lesbian couple and against the Christian photographers. They said taking pictures at a gay wedding was part of the “conduct” of being a photographer, which includes implied approval for same-sex marriages.

A New Threat to Religious & Spiritual Freedom in America?

A new threat to freedom of religion in America is growing as some Americans feel the need to distance themselves from parts of their faith. This can be seen in the new trend of churches removing crosses and other symbols of Christianity on their property not to offend those who do not identify with that faith.


The New York Times interviewed more than three dozen people of faith, between September 2016 and October 2017, across the United States to ask whether they feel their religious freedom is under threat. The people were interviewed over the phone and by email, asking them how they felt about changes in religious liberties in America since President Trump. The respondents included priests, pastors, rabbis and imams, congregants, and lay leaders from various faiths.


“It’s so much a part of who we are as Americans, this idea that we all have religious freedom,” said Russell Moore; President of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.


“It’s now clear that we have a government against religion.”

Mr. Trump’s efforts to impose his campaign-trail vision on the nation went well beyond his ban on travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries. Also, his ending of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program protected undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children. Mr. Trump also signed executive orders designed to protect business owners and employees who oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds from legal retaliation by state or local governments.

The former President used Twitter (before being banned from the platform) to announce policies prohibiting transgender people from serving in the military and promoting Christian holidays. In addition, he recently attended a National Day of Prayer event at the White House. Finally, he signed an executive order calling for a review of any national monuments created since Jan. 1, 1996, that potentially infringe on “religious liberty.”

“The State Department is now saying that promoting religious liberty does not include defending minority religions against discrimination,” said Thomas Farr, director at the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University, who served as a senior adviser on religious freedom under former president George W Bush. “That is an incorrect interpretation of what the freedom of religion is.”

Government Actions to Protect Religious Freedoms

On October 6, 2011, President Barack Obama signed a religious freedom order. This order was designed to protect members of all religions from discrimination. It meant to prevent employers from refusing to hire people because they are gay or lesbian. It also prevented employers from firing or discriminating against employees because they use birth control. It further required that churches and other religious organizations be provided insurance policies that cover birth control. Finally, this order stated that employers could not restrict health care coverage to employees if it went against the organization’s religious beliefs. 

This action has brought about much controversy within America and sparked the “War on Women” campaign.


About the Author:

Margaret Myers

Margaret Myers is director of the China and Latin America Program at the Inter-American Dialogue, where she developed the China-Latin America Finance Database, the only publicly available source of empirical data on Chinese lending to Latin America, in cooperation with Boston University’s Global Economic Governance Initiative (GEGI). Myers has published numerous articles on Chinese leadership dynamics, international capital flows, Chinese agricultural policy, and Asia-Latin America relations, among other topics. The Political Economy of China-Latin America Relations and The Changing Currents of Trans-Pacific Integration: China, the TPP, and Beyond, her co-edited volumes with Dr. Carol Wise and Dr. Adrian Hearn, respectively, were published in 2016. Before arriving at the Dialogue, Myers worked as a Latin America analyst and China analyst for the US Department of Defense, during which time she was deployed with the US Navy in support of Partnership of the Americas. Myers also worked as a senior China analyst for Science Applications International Corporation, a consultant for the Inter-American Development Bank, and for Fauquier County Schools, where she developed the county’s first Mandarin language program. Myers received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia and conducted her graduate work at The George Washington University, Zhejiang University of Technology, and the Johns Hopkins University/Nanjing University Center for Chinese-American Studies. Myers is a Council on Foreign Relations term member. She received a Freeman fellowship for China studies in 2010 and a Fulbright Specialist grant in 2014 to research China-Colombia relations in Bogotá.



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