How Freedom of Worship Has Been Used to Restrict Freedom

This year, Four Freedoms Park has been celebrating the 75th anniversary of Franklin D. Roosevelt's pivotal Four Freedoms speech, for which this memorial is named. This blog post is the third in a four-part series celebrating each of these four freedoms in a modern context.

Freedom of Worship by Norman Rockwell

Freedom of Worship by Norman Rockwell

Our country began because of a desire for personal freedoms and tolerance for different religions. The Pilgrims left England in part to get away from the Church of England and the Catholic Church, and to be able to practice their religious beliefs without persecution. The Founding Fathers were mostly Protestants, but they specifically excluded any reference to “God” or Christianity in the Constitution and created the separation of church and state in the Bill of Rights. They wanted to avoid religion being used as a tool of oppression and a cause of conflict. They supported the idea of everyone being able to practice his or her religion, or no religion at all.

Therefore, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This protects both freedom of religion and freedom of worship. These terms have often been used interchangeably, though they technically mean different things. Freedom of worship usually means the freedom for individuals to worship (or not) however they’d like, while freedom of religion is a broader definition of tolerating various theological systems and beliefs (i.e. various denominations of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and other religions).

In his historic Four Freedoms Speech of 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) called for freedom of worship (and likely meant freedom of religion as well) for everyone in the world.

In the future days which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms … The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.

Freedom of religion is closely linked with the other three freedoms enumerated by FDR: freedom of speech and expression, freedom from fear, and freedom from want. Religious tolerance and respect for diversity is critical to the rights of Americans to express themselves, peacefully assemble, disagree with the government (and each other), and receive equal protection and fair treatment under the law.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, this fundamental freedom of religion “is a major reason why the U.S. has managed to avoid a lot of the religious conflicts that have torn so many other nations apart.” Indeed, even the Department of Justice has identified this freedom as the reason our country has become “a beacon of hope and a place of refuge for people from all across the globe” and has launched a new interagency initiative to combat religious discrimination.

Unfortunately, religion often lies at the heart of politics in the United States. Religious freedom has been used for years as a justification to restrict people’s freedoms in this country. It has motivated attacks on reproductive health, from laws that prohibit abortion outright, to ones that chip away at funding and access, and others that make it challenging for women and girls to access contraceptives in a variety of ways.

The LGBTQ community is another frequent target of discrimination that is supposedly grounded in freedom of religion. The Religious Right has used narrow interpretations of the Bible to discriminate against LGBTQ people, trying to keep them from being able to marry, adopt children, use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity, talk about homosexuality in school, and even keep their jobs (you can still get fired for being gay or transgender in 28 states).

The culture of fear comes into play when politicians call for tracking all of the Muslims in this country, shutting down Islamic centers, and banning refugees unless they can prove they are Christian. States like Indiana and Texas have tried to prohibit the resettlement of Syrian refugees (fortunately the ACLU and International Rescue Committee have prevented this so far). It would seem that= some want freedom of religion and worship for themselves and not for anyone else.

Of course, it’s easy to advocate for freedom when it’s your own. But what about when it’s someone else’s? Someone who is very different from you? Someone who is unlike anyone you know? That may be more difficult, but it is just as important.

The best kinds of freedoms are the ones that endure when they’re tested. And we have repeatedly tested the four freedoms identified by FDR in this country. It’s important to remain clear-eyed and reflect on what these freedoms mean -- to our country and to each of us individually. These freedoms have evolved over time, but they are still a fundamental piece of the fabric that makes up our democracy. This is what makes America great, even though it can be complicated and messy. Freedom of religion, tolerance for differences, and diverse perspectives are key reasons that our country works, even though it’s a melting pot of various cultures and we have many different people living and working together. It exemplifies the vision that FDR elucidated in his speech 75 years ago. The four fundamental freedoms are for everyone, everywhere.