Care About Religious Liberty? Defend Religious Minorities.


Why Christians should support the “compelling interest” standard of accommodation.

For Christians, the rule should be something like this: Protect other people’s religious liberty as you would like your religious liberty to be protected.

Many believers will celebrate today because the Supreme Court ruled in Fulton v. Philadelphia that Catholic Social Services in Philadelphia should be able to continue operating according to its religious principles without getting its contract canceled by the city. That will be hailed as a victory, and it should.

But the freedom of those at a Catholic foster care agency to do their work as committed Catholics wouldn’t have been so precarious if not for a Supreme Court decision from more than 30 years ago—one that upended the status quo of religious freedom law in the United States.

There is lots of data that shows that Christians are becoming more marginal in the US. In the years ahead, it will be important to defend religious liberty legally. But strategically—and more importantly, morally—we need to do that by defending religious liberty for everyone.

That’s not what happened in Employment Division v. Smith, the critical 1990 ruling that set the precedent leading to challenges for Catholic Social Services in Philadelphia. In Smith, the Supreme Court made it much easier for the government to justify actions burdening religious free exercise. Officials were not obligated to accommodate religious practice. In fact, they could make it impossible for minority groups to be faithful to their beliefs and call it “just” and “fair.”

To understand this, let’s go back to 1963. A Seventh-day Adventist named Adell Sherbert was denied unemployment benefits after refusing to accept job offers that would have required her to …

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