Free Exercise of Religion for Me, but not Thee
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director
North Dakota Catholic Conference

April 2017

In 1992 the late journalist Nat Hentoff wrote a book called Free Speech for Me, but Not Thee. It explored how people who claimed to support free speech were willing to ignore or even support infringements upon speech with which they disagreed.

The problem still exists today and has expanded to infringements upon religion.

Many characterize attacks on religious freedom as part of a hostile campaign by Leftists determined to silence and remove any expression of religious belief outside of places of worship. There might be some truth to this narrative.

A more dangerous and closer to home threat to religious freedom, however, comes not from outright hostility toward religion, but a failure to identify and respect another’s religious beliefs.

The North Dakota Catholic Conference, for example, faced at least seven instances of legislation that threatened religious freedom during the 2017 legislative session. Supporters of these proposals would not consider themselves hostile to religion. On the contrary, in some cases, the supporters consider themselves staunch defenders of religious freedom. How is it, then, that these threats come about?

In most cases, it is a case of “Free Exercise of Religion for Me, but not Thee” or “I don’t ‘get’ your concern so it can’t be that important.”

Consider the case of guns in churches; something the conference had to oppose three times this legislative session. To Catholics the notion that church property is sacred or a reflection of our religious beliefs should seem obvious. A bishop might allow guns on the property, but because the space itself has religious significance, the decision should rest with him. Any denial of that discretion violates religious freedom.

Others, however, do not have the same view about worship space. To them, a “church” is no more than a meeting place, like a shopping mall or restaurant. They might not “get” why Catholics would be so offended by a law that would allow someone to have a gun on church property without the church’s permission.

This lack of understanding of religious sentiments has found its way into other debates, such as a bill dictating how private religious universities must treat student journalists, the anti-religious law bill — also known as the anti-Sharia bill — and the existing law that prohibits a church from restricting firearms in its own parking lots.

Sometimes the Free Exercise of Religion for Me, but not Thee problem is more overt, at least in private conversations about legislation. Some legislators privately expressed concern that a bill to expand religious rights for students and school administrators would allow non-Christians to publicly pray. This was certainly an issue in the anti-religious law bill. Some proponents erroneously believed that the bill would only restrict Muslim practices. Restricting only this religious group, they concluded, was acceptable.

The antidote to this problem is expressed in the Catholic Church’s teaching on religious freedom from the Second Vatican Council. In Dignitatis Humanae the Church teaches that everyone has a right to religious freedom. This freedom belongs to everyone because it essential to human dignity, hence the name Dignitatis Humanae. One of the basic principles of Catholic teaching is that the essentials of human dignity belongs to everyone, whether or not they are correct and whether or not they agree with us.

We do not have to understand another’s religious beliefs, and we certainly do not have to agree with them. We do, however, need to respect them.

There exist, of course, limitations to religious freedom, both morally and legally. Dignitatis Humanae recognizes that. A person cannot use religion to undermine public safety or harm another person.

None of the religious practices affected by these bills, however, posed a public harm. Some supporters of the anti-religious law bill claimed it would stop honor killings, genital mutilation, spousal abuse, and support for terrorism — a parade of horrors they insisted already existed elsewhere in the country because courts were ignoring U.S. law and were applying Sharia law instead. Our constitutional system, however, prevents abuses like that from occurring. Moreover, there exist no cases where a court has applied Sharia or any other religious law instead of U.S. and state law. The alleged horrors, in fact, never actually happened.

The real threat to our system of laws, including the free exercise of religion, comes from the inability to step into the shoes of another so that we can respect someone else’s religious rights. Stepping into their shoes does not mean accepting their beliefs. In fact, such religious equivalency is contrary to the Catholic faith. It does, however, mean seeing, as a matter of dignity, the need to protect that person’s religious rights.