Religious freedom is negotiable

Recent events have highlighted the emotions that can erupt when religious freedom is exercised – or at least, what looks like religious freedom is being exercised. The Consulting Editor of Eureka Street, Andrew Hamilton SJ, reflects on where religious freedom stands in relation to the other freedoms humanity values.

Religious freedom is negotiable

Freedom of religion is something that is normally taken for granted. But in the English speaking world there have recently been many spot fires over issues like wearing and hanging crosses in public, and proposed legislation to compel the disclosure of what is heard in confession, to compel Christian adoption agencies to accept applications from gay couples and to force clergy to marry gay couples in churches.


These, and other controversies over the insurance of contraceptive practices in the United States, have led some Catholics to identify a concerted secularist threat to religious freedom. I believe that the freedom to express publicly one's religious beliefs is central within any healthy society, but that the current tensions are part of the normal negotiation of its relationship to other values in society.


Religious freedom includes the right to hold religious beliefs, to associate with others with like beliefs, to engage in practices connected with those beliefs, and to commend one's religious allegiances, beliefs and way of life to others. Religious freedom implies the right of individuals to make and withdraw from religious allegiances, and also the right of religious groups to live by and promote their beliefs and practices.


It also means that people should not be impeded from holding religious beliefs, expressing them and embodying them in their association with others.


Religious freedom should be protected for the same reasons as political freedom. Both assert the value of human beings reflecting on what matters in life and of living publicly by the answers they give to these large questions. Religious freedom asserts the importance of human freedom and the personal centre that ground the respect given to individual choice.


This human freedom and interiority must be supported by the right to express itself in public and bodily ways. When religious or political freedom is suppressed, human beings are reduced to political and economic counters.


But religious freedom is not absolute. Nor is everything claimed in its name sacrosanct. Its claims need to be set against the claims made by other human values. And they may sometimes be denied. Extreme examples are easy to imagine. In some religions human sacrifice was central to belief systems and practice. Freedom to practise it would rightly be denied because it stands in contradiction to the central value of human life.


Some religious groups, consistently with their beliefs, have forbidden their members, including children, to receive blood transfusions. Here, too, the freedom of the parents to follow in their family life their own religious practices has been set aside in favour of the child's right to life-saving medical treatment.


On the other hand, the freedom of parents to have male children circumcised in accordance with religious tradition, though questioned, has generally been upheld.


Generally speaking, however, the most common limitations on religious freedom in democracies do not apply to central practices and beliefs themselves but to the particular ways in which individuals and groups choose to express them publicly. And those things are often negotiable.


In my childhood the church Angelus Bell rang at 7.00am each morning, including at weekends. But when the neighbours complained that it interfered with their sleep, it was rung later in the morning. Similarly, after some dispute, Sikhs were able to wear their head dress, but not as substitutes for motorbike helmets.


Such limitations on freedom of religious expression are usually negotiated peaceably by mutual agreement in a way that affirms the claim of the values in tension. Earlier fierce opposition to trying clergy in the king's courts is now a historical memory.


We should expect challenges to religious freedom from time to time as other principles come to be given a higher weight in society. These challenges will be more frequent in societies like ours where religious belief and practice decline.


Many of the present conflicts over religious freedom are associated with the high value given to the principle of non-discrimination. It is seen to be in conflict with the freedom of Christian adoption agencies to place children with Christian parents, of schools to employ only Christian staff, and with the freedom of ministers to conduct in their churches marriages only between a man and a woman.


Many see these pressures to limit religious freedom as part of a concerted effort by secularist forces. I don't see it that way. They reflect new fault lines in the tension between religious freedom and other values and the need to negotiate the claims of each in different situations.


Both religious freedom and non-discrimination are important values, but the claim made by neither is absolute. But in negotiation ambit claims are made, and from this perspective many demands for the limitation of religious freedom are simply ambit claims, not the first wave of an incoming tide.

Negotiation requires a clear understanding of the values that are in conflict in each situation, of why each value is important, of what is non-negotiable and where there is room for movement. All this is best done by persuasion, not by going to war. 


This article was originally published in Eureka Street. Please visit

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