The term “religious freedom” and the related legal term “free exercise of religion” are used a lot in public discourse and in decisions by courts, but what do these terms mean? The answer is both simple and immensely complex. A comprehensive understanding of religious freedom requires years of study, and even then one might find the answer to be elusive. However, to understand what most people mean when they use the term “religious freedom,” and what most courts mean when they use the term “free exercise of religion,” the answer is simpler. We focus on what “religious freedom” means to many of those in society who seek to protect it and what courts mean when they use the term “free exercise of religion.”
Considering these perspectives, religious freedom is the freedom to follow one's religion without inordinate government interference. It is essential to understand that this is a shorthand definition for a complex set of ideas. Whether government interference is inordinate depends on a number of legal factors explained later. The legal factors do not always reflect the essential nature of religious freedom for people of faith, but they are all that we have under the law.
Before delving into the law, however, let's address several bits of mythology that seem to affect many of those opposed to religious freedom. First and foremost is the idea that religion is just about faith, and in the minds of many opponents of religious freedom, blind faith. This is based on a stereotype of Christianity, and of religion more generally. Of course, for many people religion is about more than faith. It is about how they conduct their daily lives, who they are, and the most fundamental aspects of existence. The same is true for sexual orientation and reproductive freedom, so rather than being alien to each other, religious freedom and sexual identity share a depth that goes to the core of being. Moreover, for many religions, religious practice is as, and often more, important than faith.
Religion is at the core of many people's identity. Government interference with religious freedom can scar a person at the deepest levels. This scarring might be legally acceptable if religion did not receive any special protection under the Constitution, history, and laws of the United States, but religion has received special protection.