Over the past week, I’ve received lots of questions about whether everything from mask mandates in schools to vaccination requirements in the United States military are issues of religious freedom. Many pastors say they are getting requests from large numbers of people to write them notes for “religious exemption” from these things. (That’s not how it works.) So are they religious freedom matters or not?
In certain, very limited cases they could be. Someone who is part of, for instance, a religious tradition that eschews all medical treatment, along with any other shots or inoculations, could make a credible claim to religious liberty. There are very few such groups—and no group that I’m aware of with a creedal prohibition on masks.
Beyond that, the principle is well established in American law and culture that public health measures are a legitimate state interest. Almost all public schools have required, for years, proof of vaccination for polio and smallpox, etc. The United States military certainly has the mandate to keep troops from dying off from a potentially deadly disease. Certainly, private businesses have the right to ask potential customers to abide by their safety protocols.
This is important because of what it means to keep our health care systems from being, as many are, overwhelmed. People who cannot get timely treatment because the hospitals are filled with COVID-19 patients are in peril. This question is also important, though, if we want to preserve and protect religious liberty.
I spent the last eight years working on religious freedom issues in the United States Congress, in the courts, in state legislatures, and with interest groups across the spectrum. I can tell you that I came across very few, if any, people who would say, “I hate the First Amendment; let’s outlaw religion.” Most people who would object to religious liberty would say that it means “a card to say you can do whatever you want.” They usually include some extreme example: “So are you saying that a religion that believes in human sacrifice should be able to kill people on an altar?” Or they would say, “So religious freedom means you can play with fire in a church building and not allow the fire department in when the building’s aflame with people trapped therein?”
No. Religious freedom doesn’t mean that—and never has. Religious freedom has always recognized, as with any other freedom, that no liberty is absolute. Religious liberty means, among other things, that a government restricting liberties should demonstrate a compelling public interest and should show that it has followed the least restrictive path to getting to that outcome.
If you are part of, say, an offshoot of Christian Science that thinks any medical treatment is a lack of faith in God, you may have a legitimate religious liberty claim, showing what your religion teaches and how you cannot carry out your faith in such circumstances. That still would not allow you to walk unmasked and coughing through a Walmart, but it would be a good-faith question to address.
In times of war, governments have a legal right to conscript qualified parts of their population into military service. Pacifists (those who believe that any violence is always wrong) have a right to conscientiously object. This usually doesn’t mean that they are free from service altogether but that they might be assigned to other, nonviolent forms of service. No one wants a government forcing Mennonites to be Navy SEALs.
Conscientious objection, though, does not mean that one can cite religious liberty because one thinks the Iraq War was a mistake or because one doesn’t trust Donald Trump to make good decisions in Syria or Joe Biden to make good decisions in Afghanistan. All those things might well be true—and they may be good reasons for you to argue that you don’t want to serve. But none of those things are a matter of religious liberty.
Someone may resent having to wear a mask on a Disney cruise. Someone might think the local public school system is too demanding on mask policies with young children. A nurse might resent having to have a vaccine to work in her hospital because she doesn’t trust the injection. Those are all legitimate points of debate, I suppose, but they are not religious liberty matters. Thinking that a mask restricts your breathing the way God intended or that FDA approval of the vaccine didn’t meet your standards or whatever—these are not religious liberty questions.
We all have ideas about things for cultural or political reasons—and we should argue those things in those terms. If we call religious liberty what is not religious liberty, we jeopardize religious liberty.
You might think it’s a restriction of your Second Amendment rights that you can’t fire a gun into the air in the French Quarter of New Orleans on New Year’s Eve. That doesn’t give you the right to do so, when other people could be hurt.
The “boy who cried wolf” is a cliché, but clichés become clichés usually because they are so demonstrably true. If we call schools asking for proof of COVID-19 vaccination a religious liberty violation when we didn’t do so for proof of polio vaccination, we are not talking about religious liberty. When we rail against mask requirements for school when we never did for the school dress code, we are not talking about religious liberty. And once we define religious liberty as our right to carry out our political opinions regardless of how they affect public health or safety, we have defined religious liberty right out of its meaning.
That doesn’t settle the question, of course. Cultural and political conflicts are going to happen—but they should be argued that way.
This post was first published in Moore to the Point. Subscribe to get the latest content from Russell Moore in your inbox.