Free to Serve [Part 1]: Religion in the Public Square

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is the first in a series of articles by Collin Slowey, an intern with the Center for Public Justice. This series will explore a college student’s reflections on Free to Serve, by Stanley Carlson-Thies and Stephen V. Monsma. The book presents foundational arguments for upholding religious freedom for diverse religious groups in the public square. Slowey writes from his perspective as a Christian college student, explaining why these arguments are still relevant, despite their challenges, particularly for young people of faith. His challenges to some of the concepts the book raises will give religious freedom advocates perspective on pragmatic ways to engage the rising generation.

Freedom of religion is perhaps the most fundamental right recognized by the US Constitution. Modern Americans are generally free to practice or not to practice whatever faith they wish on an individual, private level. However, religions rarely limit themselves to the private sphere; they encourage and even command their adherents to live them out in the public sphere, too. It is here, at the level of civic engagement, that faith-based organizations (FBOs) are most likely to encounter challenges to their religious freedom.

Religious Freedom and Public Justice

Free to Serve, by Stephen V. Monsma and Stanley Carlson-Thies, provides a distinctive insight into the challenges facing FBOs, both from the national government and American society as a whole, through the lens of today’s heated political climate. The authors show us that if religious groups want to be proactive in advancing their religious freedom, they must know how to engage in the world of public policy. Americans must intentionally renew their political commitments to pluralism and authentic tolerance so as to welcome diverse religious organizations to participate fully in the public square secure.

In the first chapter of Free to Serve, authors Monsma and Carlson-Thies capture how advancing religious freedom for diverse groups is essential to applying a public justice framework, which requires us to seek out right roles and responsibilities of different institutions in society. First, they emphasize that religious freedom must mean religious freedom for all, not just for particular religious groups. In the authors’ vision of an ideal America, “society acknowledges and respects the wide diversity of religious and nonreligious belief systems, perspectives, and organizations. None is favored; none is disfavored.” This is in line with the principles of public justice, which state that government’s purpose is “to promote … the common good” (added emphasis), that of the nation as a whole. The authors’ views emphasize the importance of private institutions in the public sphere, which they suggest play a crucial role in the establishment of public justice.

Private Religion?

The authors insist that religion is almost always more than private worship, and they present this as a widely-accepted, if often overlooked, fact. I also believe that religion is more than private worship; I grew up in a devout Catholic family and attended an evangelical Christian school. Both traditions impressed upon me the inseparability of faith and public life.

But I am not sure that this position is as widely-held in American thought as Monsma and Carlson-Thies seem to imply that it is. Thomas Jefferson believed that “religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals.” And the Founding Fathers were heavily inspired by John Locke, who wrote, “the Church and the worship of God … have no connection at all with civil affairs. The only business of the Church is the salvation of souls, and it in no way concerns the commonwealth.” With their Enlightenment influences in mind, I am tempted to believe that at least some of the Founding Fathers envisioned an America in which religion would one day be moot in the public square. Certainly many people today hold this vision. We can see an example of this with the case of the Bremerton football coach who was sidelined for public prayer. Of course, the coach is a state employee, so the situation is not without nuance, but the reasoning behind people’s reactions to the controversy shows a misunderstanding of the way many Christians view their faith.

And while individuals may experience difficulty in expressing their religion publicly, groups face even tougher challenges. Free to Serve highlights real-world cases in which religious organizations’ right to employ religious staffing policies is under threat. For example, at San  Diego State University (and since 2014, at all California state universities), religious student organizations are barred from considering faith when accepting applications for leadership positions. Similarly, the evangelical humanitarian aid dispenser World Vision has been sued for firing employees who professed to no longer be Christian. World Vision has won the cases, but many Americans believed then, and still believe, that they were in the wrong. These instances are examples of a failure to understand that religion is not merely a private affair, but one that often demands external association and action.

Protecting Institutional Diversity

A public justice framework holds that institutional diversity is just as important as individual diversity: “The social diversity of human life demands just treatment, which in turn calls for public policies that sustain ‘structural pluralism’ not just the rights of individuals in relation to government” (original emphasis). If religious organizations were to be barred from enacting religious staffing policies, said organizations would effectively cease to be religious. This would significantly weaken the diversity and pluralism we, as a country, hold dear. In addition, when government officials like Judge Marsha Berzon, the dissenting judge in the deciding World Vision case, attempt to confine religion to matters of “prayer and religious learning,” they violate the principle of public justice that states, “the government does not have the authority to define true religion.”

Though I share Monsma and Carlson-Thies’ view that religious staffing practices should be protected, I was surprised during my reading by how seriously they took this particular issue. I served as an officer for the Baylor Catholic Student Association for a year, during which I unconsciously internalized some of the anti-religious staffing rhetoric currently circulating university campuses. As an officer, I would not have been surprised or offended if my university had required me to accept leadership applications from students of different faiths. My approach was to simply keep a low profile; I never even considered appealing to my organization’s rights. I was somewhat shocked, therefore, to read these words from Monsma and Carlson-Thies: “It is hard to think of a religious freedom violation more serious than a government edict that tells a Christian, Jewish, or Muslim organization it cannot hire persons who share in and are committed to its religious mission.”

Through my work with the Center for Public Justice (CPJ), though, I have come to agree with Monsma and Carlson-Thies. CPJ’s Sacred Sector initiative provides FBOs with training and resources to help them effectively advance their sacred missions through public policy, organizational practices and public positioning. Sacred Sector’s Religious Staffing Toolbox shows why religious organizations’ ability to take faith into consideration when engaging in employment practices has historically been protected under American law. A group is made up of people, and no group can retain a unifying religious mission if its members cease to be united in their faith. The phrase “personnel is policy” really is true. It is tempting to accept the popular view of religion as a purely private affair, but as the Religious Staffing Toolbox explains, doing so eliminates even the possibility of a truly faith-based organization. (To learn more about how FBOs can engage in faith-based employment practices aligned with their missions, join Sacred Sector Community and gain access to all the toolboxes.)

The Future of Religious Freedom

Fortunately, there is hope that my generation will have a respect for the religious freedom of FBOs. In my experience, college students do not have deeply-held core beliefs about the public expression of religion. Their opinions are merely the product of a kind of intellectual osmosis that occurs when significant time is spent in a higher education system and a culture that suffers generally from an incomplete understanding of religious freedom.


As such, I believe they can be turned around by honest and intelligent reasoning––the kind found in Free to Serve. The argument for institutional religious freedom is compelling because it rings true to common sense and to principles that most Americans still hold. If the apologists are persistent in their work––if they give real examples of people whose religious beliefs have had a genuine impact on the work they do for their communities, and if they thoroughly explain the historical precedent for FBOs’ rights in our country––there may yet be a bright future for religious freedom in the American public square.