The danger of crying wolf on religious liberty


For the past few years religious liberty has been a litmus test issue for conservatives, helping them decide who they can support politically and who they can’t. As a fundamental First Amendment freedom, they’re right to make it that important to their politics. But the religious liberty that’s been legislated across the country since 2013 is all too often a smokescreen for something else, and that threatens the protection of actual freedom of religion when it’s needed.

Last week a Clemson University administrator ordered a man, pictured above, to stop praying on campus. Clemson and many other universities across the country have implemented “free speech zones” that non-students are required to use for protests or other First Amendment activities. Apparently that includes prayer.

This is an actual and egregious restriction of religious freedom. Congress, and by extension taxpayer-subsidized universities, cannot restrict the free exercise of religion. Clemson can’t tell students or non-students when or where they may pray on campus. I doubt almost anyone would disagree.

The problem is that most of the discussion and legislation about religious freedom recently has been about other things, like businesses discriminating against whole classes of otherwise normal customers. As a result of the controversy following Religious Freedom Restoration Acts in Indiana and elsewhere, such protections have become less popular.

When Gary Johnson said exactly that, that legislating religious liberty exemptions to generally applicable law was a Pandora’s box of unnecessary strife, he was pilloried by conservatives who might otherwise have been open to his campaign in the face of the a-religious Trump alternative. But Johnson was exactly right.

True religious liberty, the freedom to practice any religion or none at all, is enshrined in the Constitution, and overzealous university administrators included, cannot be denied to free citizens. The failure of governments to codify discrimination allowances does not threaten that freedom.

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