Religion and Religious Freedom
The first thing for people to realize—whether you believe in a higher power or not—is that religion is humanity living in right relationship with the Divine.
Once you realize that, we can recognize that Religious Freedom is the freedom to live in accordance with this right relationship with the Divine without the state interfering.
Understanding this, the violation of Religious Freedom is the coercion to compel a person to act against what he believes is the right relationship with God or forbids him to do what he believes he must do. So when the government, society, or the employer threatens the life, liberty or property (behave this way or be dead/imprisoned/fined/fired) of the person or group for living in right relationship with the Divine, this is the violation of religious freedom.
The right relationship with the Divine affects all aspects of the individual's life . . . which includes the right to vote and legally influence the government to do what is right and just. The person who recognizes God exists has the obligation to live life in accord with His will
Now we will have to dig deeper, because what I have written above can be twisted to justify anything. Yes, some belief systems contradict other belief systems, and the balancing act of society is how to prevent one group into coercing another group into behaving in a way that is evil without opening the floodgates to "anything goes."
Religious Freedom and Conscience
Bl. John Henry Newman described the problem this way:
Conscience has rights because it has duties; but in this age, with a large portion of the public, it is the very right and freedom of conscience to dispense with conscience, to ignore a Lawgiver and Judge, to be independent of unseen obligations. It becomes a license to take up any or no religion, to take up this or that and let it go again, to go to church, to go to chapel, to boast of being above all religions and to be an impartial critic of each of them. Conscience is a stern monitor, but in this century it has been superseded by a counterfeit, which the eighteen centuries prior to it never heard of, and could not have mistaken for it, if they had. It is the right of self-will. (Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, 5)
We have rights because we have obligations to obey our conscience—a word which is grossly abused today (and in the 19th century). People confuse conscience with the autonomy to do anything that doesn't personally bother you. The problem with that standard is, a sociopath may not feel anything telling him his behavior is wrong. But that doesn't mean what he does is not wrong. It only means he is not aware of anything telling him it is wrong . . . which is a terrible way to run a society.
So let's look at the truth of "Conscience has rights because it has duties." Conscience must be formed. A person knows nothing about a topic, he or she may not realize that there is acceptable and unacceptable behavior in relation to that topic. So it's not enough to say "I don't see anything wrong with X so it must be OK." One has to look into the truth of the issue in order to form the conscience correctly.
Conscience and Truth
So that gives us another key to the puzzle. Conscience must be formed in relation to truth, not to opinion or what is culturally acceptable. If the culture goes wrong, it is not a good guide to follow what it approves.
This is why we can't rely on what society accepts to determine right and wrong
Truth is to say of what is, that it is and of what is not, that it is not (to borrow from Aristotle). We have to know what is true and what is not true when it comes to determining how we must behave. That does begin with investigating the teachings of God. If God exists, and we are obligated to do as He teaches, then determining right and wrong must be in agreement with that teaching.
Combining the Chain: Truth, Conscience, Freedom of Religion—and God
Truth is the basis of conscience and conscience is the basis of freedom of religion . . . and every other right in the First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The First Amendment could be called "The Truth Amendment." The freedoms of religion, speech, the press, assembling peacefully and petitioning the government for redress of grievances all deal with:
- Seeking the Truth
- Living in Accord with the Truth
- Sharing the Truth with others (peacefully)
All people have this obligation. It's an obligation no government can interfere with.
In the Declaration of Independence, we are told:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Note that it is the Creator, not the state, that has granted these rights. Because they are given by a source above and beyond the authority of the state, the state cannot interfere with these rights.
Unfortunately, in America we are seeing the usurpation of these rights. Factions who have the ear of the government try to tell us we cannot refuse providing services that we find interfering with the right relationship with God, that we cannot speak out or pass laws against behavior that is harmful to people.
Ultimately, the actions in America interfere with seeking, following and sharing the Truth. This interference with the truth interferes with the ability to carry out our responsibilities. Because of this, our freedoms are impaired.
Yet at the same time we are prevented from carrying out our responsibilities in right relationship with God, the state is inventing rights, which have nothing to do with responsibility.
When Autonomy Replaces Obligation as the basis for a Right
Abortion and "Gay Marriage" are not issues where we have the truth leading us to moral obligation. They are issues where proponents want to be free of moral obligation. In other words, modern society has stood the idea of freedom on it's head. There is no truth to the claim that a person has the power to kill another person arbitrarily . . . but that is what abortion does. There is no truth to the claim that two people of the same gender can marry when the essence of marriage is one man and one woman can form a permanent union with the intention to being open to the transmission of life. In fact, it is impossible for a same sex relationship to do this.
With no truth, there is no moral obligation to carry out these acts. With no moral obligation to carry out, there is no right to do these things. Even if a permissive group should say "We see nothing wrong with this," it doesn't mean the person has the right to do it. Indeed, to say "I don't see anything wrong with it, so it is OK to do it is the argument from ignorance fallacy: I don't think it is wrong, so it must be ok.
Just Because You Don't See Anything Wrong Doesn't Mean It is OK
Ultimately, it is the failure to recognize that the chain of truth—»obligation—»right that plagues our country. We believe "rights" mean freedom of activity to do as we wish. Thus we get bizarre rulings from the courts, like the"right" to abortion, contraception, and "gay marriage." At the same time we see that genuine rights rooted in the obligations brought on by truth are spurned and attacked as being bigotry.
That's where the person of good will who seeks the truth has to pause. If the concept of the obligation to seek out, follow and share the truth is denied, our nation becomes unfree, no matter how many "rights" the courts and the politicians may invent.