Reframing Religious Freedom: How Protecting Faith-Based Institutions is Essential to Public Justice

Editor's Note: This article was written in response to a specific event in which Rep. Ilhan Omar gave remarks about religious freedom. This article is neither an attack or defense of her views in general, and it is not a commentary of discussions about Middle Eastern policy. 

In February, the Center for American Progress (CAP) hosted a presentation by Rep. Ilhan Omar called “Reclaiming Religious Freedom.” It was the first in a series of events to be put on by CAP’s new Faith and Progressive Policy Project, which aims to “strengthen the religious, spiritual, and moral values that inspire us to achieve a more just, merciful nation and world—and to build support for the policies that will help bring this vision into reality.”

In her presentation, Omar used religious freedom terminology and expressed what initially sounded similar to public justice sentiments, which encourage a robust structural pluralism to protect individuals’ and institutions’ faith-based beliefs and practices. For example, Omar called for a society that includes “all faiths and none.” She called for all citizens to renew their commitments to the First Amendment and its Establishment Clause, which protects against a state faith. Omar said she believes we need to deepen our understanding of “what it means to preserve the right to religious freedom in America—and what it does not.”

But in examining progressive faith values, she presented a very particular and narrow vision of religious freedom. It is one that avoids discrimination and emphasizes tolerance, but also incurs significant costs and necessitates a reframing of the basic role of religion in American public life. Omar let pass an opportunity to defend the rights of both individuals and institutions to publicly practice their faith, rights which are best protected under a structural pluralist system.

Religious Freedom as a Threat

Omar, from Minnesota’s 5th congressional district, is one of the first two Muslim women and the first naturalized African to serve in Congress. From her point of view, religious freedom is being both attacked and manipulated—weaponized, even—by conservatives and the current presidential administration.

For example, she felt that the president’s Executive Order 13769, which limited travel from many Muslim-majority countries, sent a message to the world that Islam is unwelcome in America. She also stated that vitriol directed toward Muslim and Hispanic immigrants (on account of alleged cases of violence and terrorism) only fuels hatred of all kinds. Omar also discussed a case in South Carolina in which the Department of Health and Human Services is allowing religious government-funded foster care programs to maintain their religious standards. Omar argued that this permits inexcusable discrimination against the LGBTQ population.

How can these things happen, she asked, when American principles, like the foundational ideas of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, are supposed to view all people as equal under the law? She argued that the First Amendment should live up to what she considers to be its claim to protect every citizen from religious bigotry. Unfortunately, she said, we’ve been complacent and have just now come to realize that our nation does not live up to that ideal as much as we thought it did.

According to Omar, Americans can come together despite their differences. For instance, she said she has experienced instances of unity and solidarity after great tragedies like the shootings in Orlando and Pittsburgh. But she asserted that this can only happen if religious people choose to focus on the parts of their religion that champion inclusivity and equality, rather than “the worst parts of faith.”

Religion and Public Justice

In a public justice framework, the purpose of government is to establish peace and order, while promoting the common good, working toward the general well-being of all. This means government has an affirmative role to play in establishing policies that promote human flourishing—especially for the most vulnerable. In other words, the state can do more than just restrain evil and punish injustice. Yet a public justice framework also recognizes government's need to restrain itself so that other institutions in civil society, such as families, congregations, businesses and nonprofits, can fulfill their own distinct roles and responsibilities.

This idea of respecting the proper boundaries between different spheres of society has biblical roots. In Genesis 1:28, God commands humanity to “fill the earth and subdue it.” This means that from the beginning, even before the Fall, mankind had a mandate to govern and produce order. However, from a public justice perspective, God’s command applies to every area of life, not just the state. Consequently, the non-governmental spheres of the economy, the arts, the church, the family—the list goes on—should all be afforded significant autonomy and protection under law.

In their efforts to address real social dilemmas related to religious freedom, progressives aligned with Omar’s vision are actually limiting the scope of religious freedom to merely individual, private, explicitly religious acts. Their focus is on inclusivity—for all individuals in all areas of society—at any cost. Yet a truly inclusive vision of religious freedom, from a public justice perspective, insists on religious diversity for organizations as well as individuals. Religious freedom does not just apply to personal, private acts of worship, but to organizations practicing their faith through their service in the public square, as well.

Omar disapproves strongly of faith-based child placement agencies’ freedom to allow their faith to influence with whom they place children. In her vision of a tolerant society, government-funded faith-based organizations are not allowed to integrate their sacred animating beliefs with their practices. But in a public justice framework, religious adoption agencies should not have to choose between acting in the public square and following their faith-based missions. Omar’s definition of inclusion does not leave a place for religious institutions to exercise their necessary roles in society.   

Reframing Religious Freedom

In her presentation, Omar commented that her vision is possible because faith can be “internalized” and private. “I visually present my faith,” she said, presumably in reference to her hijab, “but I don’t externally practice it.” In most religions, however, external practice is the natural outgrowth of one’s animating sacred beliefs, and this hold true for both individuals and organizations with religious identities. If government restricts an organization’s ability to incorporate its religious beliefs into its services, it is infringing upon religious freedom. Faith groups can come together across difference in mutual respect of their outward practices. Public justice rejects the notion that either individuals or organizations must suppress their faith-based practices in order to be tolerant of those with whom they disagree.

For public justice and religious freedom to thrive, individuals and groups must be free to live out their sacred animating beliefs in every aspect of their personal and organizational lives, including how they engage in the public square. The views espoused at the “Reclaiming Religious Freedom” event are worth considering. Many of Omar’s concerns are legitimate. But when the state designates certain beliefs more important than others, citizens are restricted in their abilities to live out their faith through the mediating institutions of civil society. Enforcing a secular uniformity throughout the public square would only harm religious freedom, not reclaim it.

Andrea Rice is an intern with the Center for Public Justice and a student at Westmont College.

Collin Slowey is an intern with the Center for Public Justice and a student at Baylor University studying political science.