Jared Olar: What to do about religious freedom?

Jared Olar

Quite a lot of people around the world, and even in the U.S., aren’t quite sure what to make of this relatively recent idea known as “freedom of religion.”

Looking at the broad sweep of human history, freedom of religion is one of mankind’s newer ideas, so some lingering uncertainty about how it’s supposed to work in day-to-day life should probably be expected.

If that’s true even in the U.S., small wonder that religious freedom is hindered or nonexistent in most other countries — and not only in places like atheist totalitarian China, which seeks to subjugate and subvert all religions.

It’s a rather different story in France, where there is no state church and the government is so committed to secularism that it (usually) maintains an uneasy truce with France’s religions — a hangover from the bloodily anti-Christian French Revolution, which attempted to establish the worship of the false goddess of “Reason” in place of the worship of God.

Given that logical incoherence, it should be no surprise that France’s Catholic cathedrals are owned by the secular state (stolen during the revolution and never returned) — and so it is that the atheist mayor of Rheims recently decreed that there would be no praying of the Our Father during the public celebration of the 800th anniversary of the dedication of Rheims Cathedral. The mayor graciously will allow the Hail Mary, though.

Imagine the outcry if the mayor of a U.S. city meddled in religious affairs like that.

Bad experiences with state churches in both Europe and America led the Founding Fathers to ban the federal government from setting up an official state church or from prohibiting the free exercise of religion. Today most European countries protect religious freedom — or at least they do ostensibly. Some of them attempt to have it both ways, though.

Britain and Sweden both claim to guarantee freedom of religion, and that claim is generally true. Still, Britain maintains an official church that functionally is an arm of the state, and Sweden had the same kind of arrangement until 2000.

It has been a long time since the British and the Swedes engaged in widespread violence and bloodshed against those who tried to resist the state’s takeover of the church. There was, however, the troubling incident of government persecution of Rev. Ake Green, who was sentenced to a month in prison in 2004 for preaching a sermon harshly denouncing homosexuals as sinners.

To Sweden’s credit, Green’s sentence was overturned the following year. Even so, this case demonstrates the differences that exist in U.S. and Swedish laws and attitudes regarding religious freedom. As Americans, most of us would disagree at least with the tone if not the content of Green’s sermon, but it wouldn’t even occur to most of us to charge him with a crime for exercising his religion.

There was a similar case in Canada in 2008, when the Alberta Human Rights Tribunal actually decreed that Protestant pastor Stephen Boisson must cease all publication of the traditional Christian teaching on homosexuality, fining him $5,000 and ordering him to publicly apologize and recant his beliefs.

Sadly, such assaults on freedom of religious conscience are not unknown even here.

One of them came in 2008, when the New Mexico Human Rights Commission ordered Elaine Huguenin, a self-employed Christian photographer, to pay a lesbian couple $6,600 for declining to photograph their same-sex commitment ceremony. Huguenin’s attorney said it’s like forcing a vegetarian videographer to choose between making a commercial for a butcher or going out of business.

In Illinois, Catholic Charities probably will be forced to cease adoption services due to its conscientious objection to the placement of children with unmarried cohabiting heterosexual and homosexual couples.

Now, the First Amendment isn’t a license to do or say whatever one likes in the name of religion, and it can be hard to balance conflicting civil rights. But we are sure to see more challenges to freedom of religious conscience arising from the contentious question of the social acceptance of homosexuality, and it will test our commitment to the free exercise of religion.

Jared Olar may be reached at