Religious Freedom in America
America was founded with the belief that every person inherently has the freedom to worship God and exercise their faith, according to the dictates of his or her conscience. Thus, our laws have afforded great protection to individual religious freedom.
As a result, it has historically been relatively easy to be a Christian in the United States.
Not anymore. The days of "comfortable Christianity" are gone in America, and as some would say, good riddance.
"We don't have Mayberry anymore, if we ever did. Good. Mayberry leads to hell just as surely as Gomorrah does. But Christianity didn't come from Mayberry in the first place, but from a Roman Empire hostile to the core to the idea of a crucified and resurrected Messiah. We've been on the wrong side of history since Rome, and it was enough to turn the world upside down." -Russell Moore, read more in Is Christianity Dying?
This means that those with the light of Christ will burn even brighter. To claim the name of Christ will actually mean something, and it will certainly come with a worldly cost. We rejoice at this because this simply means that Christ is purifying His Bride before His return!
Keep reading below to equip yourself and your family so that you fully understand your right to live out your faith. Also check out the compelling personal stories of those who have faced many fires--personal, financial, and more--for living out their faith.
Laws Meant to Protect Religious Freedom Rights
Historically, the U.S. has had the strongest legal protections for the free exercise of religious belief. In fact, the right to religious freedom was considered so inherent to who we are as individuals made in the image of God that it is called our "First Freedom," the first freedom named in the First Amendment to the Constitution.
Since then, many federal statutory legal protections, state statutes, and state constitutions have been drafted to support the right to religious freedom.
Check out the infographic below to see how legal protections for religious freedom are meant to work. The U.S. Constitution is considered the supreme Law of the Land--no law can contradict the U.S. Constitution. That's why it's the foundation. All other levels of law are built upon it, and each level must provide proper safeguards for religious freedom.
After you've glanced through the infographic and have an understanding of how our laws protecting religious freedom should work, be sure to review the What Are Your Rights? section to get the specifics for your situation!
What Are Your Rights?
I am a pastor or church leader:
Pastors and churches generally enjoy the greatest religious freedom protections under our law.
CAUTION! MN law makes clear that the "secular business activities" of ministries will not be protected when it comes to religious beliefs about marriage. However, religious freedom protections are strong under the MN Constitution and U.S. Constitution. If you are a pastor or church leader who has concerns about potentially "secular business activities" of a church, please contact Family@mfc.org .
- Church security
- Church autonomy
- Church governing documents (including "5 Things All Churches Should Have in Their By-Laws")
- Sermon tools
- Church involvement in politics
- Land use rights
- Seasonal religious expression
- And more!
Alliance Defending Freedom has also created a resource every pastor, church, and ministry must have on hand! The church doors must be kept open and her voice must be unleashed for the sake of the Gospel!
- Download for free your must-have copy of Protecting Your Ministry from Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity Lawsuits!
I am a student or teacher in a public school:
Students cannot be discriminated against because of their religious beliefs in school. Schools cannot force students to express views or adopt values that run contrary to their religious convictions, nor may they impose special restrictions based on student’s religious views or status.
The national legal alliance, Alliance Defending Freedom, created resources explaining the rights students have to express their faith in public schools:
Other resources helping you understand your constitutionally protected right to religious freedom in public schools:
I am a public university student:
Christian students and groups at public universities have the right to: Equal access to campus facilities; Equal access to university funding; Freedom from university interference in campus religious group’s internal governance and composition; and Basic due process of law before any rights or privileges are revoked, even if for legitimate reasons.
- Alliance Defending Freedom's Freedom of Expression at Public Universities
I am a business owner:
Followers of Christ in the for-profit sector certainly have among the least legally protected rights to religious expression. Minnesota Family Council is working actively with our national and local allies to strengthen laws protecting Christians in business. No American family should have to choose between their faith and earning a living.
Business owners are protected by both the state and federal Constitutions with basic religious freedom rights. Additionally, federal statute 28 U.S.C. § 1291 (1964) requires employers to take reasonable steps to accommodate the religious beliefs of employees.
Family business owners received a huge win for religious freedom at the Supreme Court in June 2014 when the Court held that family business owners do not lose their religious freedom rights when they go into business, holding that Hobby Lobby family owners did not have to provide employees with 4 of the required contraceptive/sterilization services required under Obamacare because 4 of those services can cause abortions. The Hobby Lobby family owners objected to this requirement because they are Christians who believe life begins at conception. The Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case was a huge win for the religious freedom of business owners!
Sadly, here in MN, the MN Department of Human Rights has made clear that it will punish civilly or even criminally those business owners who attempt to live out their belief that marriage is the union of a man and a woman. Business owners targeted by same-sex couples who seek to force their business to serve a gay "wedding" should contact:
- Minnesota Family Council: Family@mfc.org
- OR Alliance Defending Freedom's Get Legal Help
I am a nonprofit or ministry leader:
Nonprofits and ministries generally enjoy greater religious freedom protections than do for-profit entities. One of those privileges includes tax-exempt status.
CAUTION! MN law makes clear that the "secular business activities" of ministries will not be protected when it comes to religious beliefs about marriage. Please contact Family@mfc.org with any questions.
- Download for free your must-have copy of Alliance Defending Freedom's Protecting Your Ministry from Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity Lawsuits!
I am a government worker:
Under Minnesota law:
- State employees who observe a religious holiday, which does not fall on Sunday or legal holiday, are entitled to such days off without pay.
- State employees may refuse to provide contraceptive or abortion services if it is contrary to their personal and religious beliefs.
- Social workers cannot discriminate against a client, student, intern, or supervisee based on religious affiliation when providing services to them.
I am a chaplain:
- Consider joining the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty
- Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty's Guide for Chaplain's Rights
- Alliance Defending Freedom's Legal Help for Chaplains
I am a medical/healthcare worker:
Under Minnesota law:
- Individuals, hospitals or institutions, unless public, cannot be coerced, held liable or discriminated against because of a refusal to perform, assist, accommodate or submit to an abortion.
- Healthcare companies are not required to provide coverage for abortions.
- Hospitals that refuse to permit the performance of an abortion on its premises are not liable for damages arising from a refusal.
- Physicians, nurses, or other healthcare individuals who refuse to perform or assist in an abortion, are not liable for damages arising from a refusal nor can they be dismissed, suspended, demoted, or prejudiced by the affiliated hospital because of the refusal.
- Healthcare Providers cannot impose any stereotypes of behavior, values, or roles related to religious affiliation on students, supervisees, or research subjects.
I have been convicted of a crime and am serving my sentence:
Under Minnesota and federal law:
- Residents of correctional facilities must be given the opportunity to participate in spirituality services, activities, and counseling on a voluntary basis. Minn. R. 2960.0080(8) (2013).
- Prisoners do not lose all of their first amendment rights upon entering prison, although such rights are subjected to reasonable regulations. Remmers v. Brewer, 475 F.2d 52 (8th Cir. 1973).
- Any substantial burden on a prisoner’s religious exercise must be the “least restrictive means” of furthering a compelling governmental interest. 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000cc (2000).
- Prison regulations violate a prisoner’s right to religious freedom where enforcement of regulations would violate prisoner’s sincere religious beliefs. Martinelli v. Dugger, 817 F.2d 1499 (11th Cir. 1987).
The freedom to live out your belief that marriage is between 1 man and 1 woman, as God designed it:
Barronelle has been a florist for over 30 years, even providing floral designs for the gay customer who ultimately sued her for declining to provide a cake for his gay wedding, since she is a Christian.
The Washington attorney general also sued Barronelle himself. The State offered to settle with Barronelle, saying she could pay a fine and agree to do floral designs for gay weddings...then the case would be over with.
"No. It's not about the money. It's about freedom. It's about my eight kids and our 23 grandchildren and the future and now. There's not a price on freedom. You can't buy my freedom. And it's me now, but tomorrow it's going to be you. You got to wake up."
Barronelle's case is currently on appeal at the Supreme Court of Washington.
Watch her exclusive on the Kelly File.
Aaron and Melissa Klein owned Sweet Cakes by Melissa in Oregon. They had to shut down their family-owned bakery after declining to provide a wedding cake to a lesbian wedding, since Aaron and Melissa are both Christians.
They lost their business, and now an Administrative Law Judge has ruled that they have to pay the lesbian couple a $135,000 fine personally.
"'They don't have business assets so when we talk about [the fine] it's personal' [their lawyer] added. 'It means that's money they would have used to feed their children that they can't use anymore.'"
Aaron said the sum is enough to financially ruin their family.
The Kleins are awaiting final ruling on the case from the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries. They have also repeatedly requested that the record in their case be opened based on clear evidence that the Bureau of Labor and Industries worked directly with the leading OR LGBT advocacy organization against the Kleins in this case.
Elane and her husband Jonathan own Elane Photography in New Mexico. Elane politely declined to photograph a same-sex commitment ceremony because she and her husband are Christians.
As a result, the New Mexico Human Rights Commission ordered Elane to pay a nearly $7000 fine. Then, the New Mexico Supreme Court upheld that ruling, adding that compromising one's beliefs is "the price of citizenship." Wow!
The U.S. Supreme Court denied Elane's appeal.
In August 2014, the owners of a Rice Creek hunting preserve that permits weddings on the land received a complaint from the MN Department of Human Rights after they declined to permit a gay wedding because of their religious beliefs.
In order to preserve their business, the owners settled the complaint with the Human Rights Department. As part of the terms of the settlement, the MN Human Rights Department forced the owners to permit gay weddings on their property, and they also had to pay for the gay couple's wedding and reception.
Our friends, Robert & Cynthia, came to MN in 2013 to explain to the MN Legislature how gay marriage impacts religious freedom.
Just 1 year after gay marriage became legal in NY, a lesbian couple filed a Human Rights complaint against Robert & Cynthia for declining to host a gay wedding on their beautiful farm, where they also live.
The Giffords were ordered to pay over $10,000 in fines, and they no longer host weddings on the farm. They chose to halt a major portion of their income rather than violate their beliefs.
The Giffords are appealing the administrative law judge's ruling.
Jack owns Masterpiece Cakes in Colorado. After he declined to design a cake for a same-sex union ceremony, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission rule that Jack was guilty of unlawful discrimination. Jack is appealing the ruling against him to the CO Court of Appeals.
Ironically, another CO man set out to make a point--he asked pro-LGBT bakers to design cakes with Bible verses addressing homosexuality and God's redemption for all sinners, and a picture of two men with a red X over the image. Obviously, the pro-LGBT bakers declined to make this cake, so the CO man (just like the gay couple who filed a complaint about Jack) filed a complaint with the CO Civil Rights Commission.
This time the CO Civil Rights Commission contradicted itself, saying that the pro-LGBT bakers did NOT have to make the cake. The contradictory decisions show the clear bias against Christian beliefs.
Thomas & Gilbert served as magistrates in North Carolina. After federal court rulings forced NC to recognize same-sex marriages, both magistrates were forced to quit after court administrators ordered them to perform same-sex weddings. The magistrates have filed suit to defend their rights.
The good news in this case is that our friends & allies at the North Carolina Family Policy Council helped pass a bill and override the NC governor's veto to protect the religious freedom of magistrates and registers of deeds staff in NC. Now, in NC magistrates and registers of deeds staff may recuse themselves from facilitating same-sex marriages when they recuse based on a sincerely held religious belief. This is great news for NC!
The freedom to refuse to participate in abortions:
David & Barbara founded Hobby Lobby. Now the multimillion dollar company owns more than 550 stores nationwide with nearly 30,000 employees. The company is entirely family-owned and runs the business seeking to honor the Lord in all they do, operating the company in a manner consistent with biblical principles.
Sadly, Obamacare’s abortion pill mandate forced most employers regardless of their religious or moral convictions, to offer insurance that covers abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization, and contraception--or else pay crippling fines. Hobby Lobby filed suit seeking a declaration from the court that the federal mandate imposes on the Green family's religious freedom, forcing them to provide four specific potentially abortion-inducing drugs and devices. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that families do not lose their religious freedom when they open a family business.
Twelve nurses filed a lawsuit at a hospital run by University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey because the hospital threatened to fire them if they refused to assist in abortions. Forcing health care professionals to participate in an abortion would violate both state and federal law. The New Jersey hospital agreed in a settlement that it will not force nurses to assist with abortion cases if doing so would violate their moral or religious views.
"I couldn't do what they were asking me to do...I could not. You go against what you believe, what are you? What's left? Just a shell of what you are."
-Beryl Otieno Ngoje, one of the 12 NJ nurses who said NO
The freedom to keep your religious beliefs AND get an education:
For a Speech 101 class assignment, Jonathan Lopez spoke about his Christian faith, including his belief in marriage as the union of one man and one woman as God designed it. Jonathan’s professor interrupted his speech, called him a “fascist bastard” in front of the class, accused him of “offending” the class, refused to grade his speech (writing, “Ask God what your grade is” on the evaluation sheet), and threatened to get him expelled when he complained to the dean about the mistreatment.
Jonathan and his lawyers at Alliance Defending Freedom filed suit, challenging Los Angeles City College's speech policy that basically dictated that "if you think something you are going to say will offend someone, don't say it." A federal court agreed the policy violated free speech rights and blocked the college from enforcing its policy. However, the liberal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
The good news is, though, that the lower federal court agreed that Jonathan's professor violated his free speech rights, ordered the professor to stop, and awarded Jonathan damages.
Jennifer Keeton was enrolled in a counseling program at Augusta State University, seeking to obtain her master’s degree in school counseling. During her time in the program, Jennifer had respectfully voiced her Christian beliefs regarding sexuality and gender identity. After Jennifer completed her first year in the program, school officials asked her to participate in a remediation plan addressing what the faculty perceived as deficiencies in her “ability to be a multiculturally competent counselor, particularly with regard to working with gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning (GLBTQ) populations.” Keeton declined the remediation plan and claimed it violated her First Amendment free speech and free exercise rights. A federal appeals court ruled against Jennifer, and she was ultimately kicked out of the University's counseling program.
No public university should ever require a student to abandon their religious freedom in order to get an education.
Julea Ward, a graduate student in counseling at Eastern Michigan University (EMU), referred her potential client to another counselor when the client sought counseling over a same-sex relationship. Julea is a Christian who holds religious beliefs against such a relationship, and client referrals are a very common practice. EMU forced Julea to appear before a faculty review board, which told her to “see the error of her ways,” and take a “remediation” course. She refused to do either, and was expelled.
In Julea's lawsuit against EMU for religious discrimination, EMU agreed to pay Ward a sum of money to settle her claims and to remove the expulsion form her record.
Emily Brooker's professor at Missouri State University required her to write a letter to the Missouri legislature expressing support for homosexual adoption. Emily refused and was charged with the most serious offense possible and even threatened with her degree being withheld. She also faced a long interrogation from a university "ethics" committee where she was asked questions such as “Do you think gays and lesbians are sinners?” and “Do you think I am a sinner?”
The University ultimately cleared Emily's record and removed her professor from his administrative duties.
The freedom to speak about your religious beliefs:
These dynamic twin brothers, David and Jason Benham, are former professional baseball players, nationally acclaimed entrepreneurs, devoted family men, and authors of the book “Whatever the Cost”. Their rapid rise to success earned them a reality television show on HGTV that was set to air in the fall of 2014. The show was abruptly cancelled at the last minute, however, because of their outspoken commitment to biblical values.
The Benhams immediately found themselves in the midst of a cultural firestorm, and they decided not to back down. Appearing on national media outlets, and speaking live at events across the nation, they continue to boldly and winsomely share their faith in Christ and commitment to live according to His Word, shining as Light in the world – whatever the cost. They even joined Minnesota Family Council at their annual dinner in May 2015!
Kelvin Cochran spent 30 years of his life fighting fires and serving his community. He ultimately earned national recognition for his service, receiving an appointment by President Obama as U.S. Fire Administrator for the United States Fire Administration, the highest office in the profession.
Informed by his faith, Kelvin wrote a book that briefly discusses the clear biblical teaching that sex is reserved for marriage between a man and a woman. When the city of Atlanta found out, they initially suspended Cochran for 30 days without pay and ordered that he undergo sensitivity training. An investigation revealed he did not discriminate against anyone, but at the end of his suspension, he was fired anyway. Cochran filed suit in the federal court to vindicate his rights, freedom of speech and religion, in the City of Atlanta.
There was no evidence that Brandon's leadership or work were in question. “I never saw any kind of behavior or attitude from him that was not in line with Mozilla’s values of inclusiveness,” said Mozilla Executive Chairwoman Mitchell Baker. Brandon's situation warns us that "tolerance and diversity" are not extended to those of the Christian faith or those who believe in true marriage.
The freedom to serve your country AND live out your religious beliefs:
“He’s in a catch-22 between his faith and his career,” said Modder's attorney.
Modder is a former Marine and current Navy chaplain. He has been removed from his unit for sharing his faith, particularly biblical teaching on homosexuality and sexual relationships outside of marriage, in private pastoral settings. Now, he's being accused of being unable to serve the "diverse environment" of the U.S. Navy. Chaplains, however, must be endorsed by a specific denomination in order to serve. If a chaplain fails to stay true to the teachings of their faith, the denomination can withdraw their support.
Modder's commanding office even issued a "no contact" order, preventing Modder from fulfilling his pastoral duties to a grieving family after a soldier in his unit unexpectedly passed away.