Politicians distort and defame religious freedom

Laws infringing on Americans’ liberty to access reproductive healthcare and gender-affirming healthcare proliferate in state legislatures across the United States, including Nebraska. Public schools are becoming ideological battlegrounds, where parents seek to assume ultimate control over the information their children receive. One defense for these unconstitutional intrusions into freedom of autonomy, expression, and healthcare is common: “religious freedom.” 

Religious freedom is guaranteed by the First Amendment, and it is an essential tenet of any functioning society. But its meaning has become distorted by neo-fascist politicians who use “religious freedom” as an excuse to censor media, persecute marginalized groups, and infringe on other American’s basic freedom. 

Religious freedom stops being a valid justification when it infringes on others’ constitutional rights to live freely. Yes, we all have the inherent human right to practice our religion. We do not, however, have the right to use that freedom as an excuse to limit others’ lives. 

Right now, “religious freedom” is often used as an excuse to suppress reproductive healthcare. Anti-abortion advocates often argue that allowing other people to access abortion is a violation of their faith. The Nebraska Family Alliance, an organization that supports conservative political causes in Nebraska, states that its vision is to, “ensure Nebraska is a place where God is honored, marriages and families thrive, life is cherished, parental rights are protected, and religious liberty flourishes.” 

Yet, despite their stated commitment to ensuring that “religious liberty flourishes,” the Nebraska Family Alliance actively and consistently advocates for legislation that suppresses minority religions. I’m a Reform Jew, and the Reform Judaism movement understands traditional Jewish values to support abortion rights. “The Reform Movement’s positions on reproductive rights are grounded in the core belief that each person should have agency and autonomy over their own bodies. Our advocacy around abortion access is inspired by the Jewish value of kavod ha’briyot, respect for individual dignity,” the Union for Reform Judaism states. In fact, Jewish leaders have led lawsuits against abortion bans, stating that the bans suppress their right to make medical decisions that align with their religious beliefs. 

Conservative lawmakers claim that they defend religious freedom, but their legislation does the exact opposite as it suppresses the religious rights of millions of Americans. 

“Religious freedom” has a long history as an excuse for persecution in the United States. In elementary school history class, many of us were taught that the Pilgrims fled to the United States in pursuit of religious tolerance. This lesson often goes along with a picturesque view of the first Thanksgiving, with Indigenous people in headdresses sitting alongside Pilgrims in buckled hats, sharing a meal in a lovely moment of intercultural peace and friendship. After all, the Pilgrims, Puritans who rebelled against the Church of England, fled from religious persecution to the so-called New World. With a history of fleeing religious persecution and a dedication to creating a new country of religious freedom, the Pilgrims should’ve been understanding and respectful to the religions of the Indigenous tribes they encountered, right?  

Wrong. The Pilgrims used religion as an essential tool in their suppression and attempted destruction of Indigenous American cultures. Indigenous people of North America suffered plagues of smallpox and measles, illnesses brought to the continent by European colonists. National Geographic writes, “Some colonial leaders, such as the Puritan minister Increase Mather, believed that the illness and decimation of the New England Native Americans was an act of God to support the colonists’ right to the land.” Though they stated that they were motivated by religious freedom, colonists used religion as justification in their mission to make the United States a homogenous Christian nation, forcibly suppressing those who disagreed. 

The Pilgrims were the first (though surely not the last) Europeans who used “religious freedom” as a justification for the destruction of Indigenous cultures in the United States, as well as discrimination against marginalized groups, such as immigrants, Black people, LGBTQ+ people, and women. And this legacy continues into the present, as politicians in legislatures across the country cite “religious freedom” as they advance bills that threaten Americans’ access to healthcare and freedom of expression. 

Though this hypocrisy in the name of religious freedom is common, it can and must be addressed. Lawmakers need to create policies based on facts with the goal of creating a more equitable and fair society for everyone, and “religious freedom” must not be an excuse for harmful legislation to pass. Religious freedom may be a First Amendment right, but it’s not permission for one religious group to discriminate against the rest.