On The Extent of Religious Freedom

Where do we draw the line to preserve equality and safety for everyone?

via Jenny Marvin on Unsplash

Renee Bach moved to Jinja, Uganda at just 18 years old to found her NGO, Serving His Children (SHC). The young missionary sought to help children battling malnutrition, and, on the surface, her commitment to improving their lives was undoubtedly admirable. Nevertheless, it soon came out that Bach “was actively practicing medicine on children that came to the center.” Bach, whose choice of medical training was none other than video-sharing website Youtube, jeopardized the lives of all the children she treated. Later, it was discovered that she would even abduct children from medical institutions and bring them back to her center to treat.

When activists tried to hold her accountable for her wrongdoings, Bach’s supporters dubbed them “the enemy” and defended her work by explaining it was just her “calling from God.” After much protest, SHC was eventually shut down in 2015, but even today, there still hasn’t been a full investigation into Bach’s actions. After all of the crimes she committed, she got off unscathed and left an innumerable amount of kids dead.

But it was all in the name of God, so it’s fine. Right?

Spoiler: no, it’s not.

Bach and her supporters used her God to rationalize her horrendous actions. The kids she treated were not necessarily of the same religion as her, yet they paid the price for her religious calling. Furthermore, even if they were, she put their lives in danger (and took some of them) by just asserting that her religion was the motive for her work. Bach took advantage of the fact that if someone got in the way of her work, it would look like they were violating her right to practice religion, ultimately averting attention from the atrocities she was committing.

Unfortunately, Bach is not alone in the act of using her religion to further her own agenda. Recently, I came across a blog post in which author Megan Redshaw taught anti-vaxxers how to get a religious exemption. In the post, she said when you are requesting an exemption, “[anytime] you find yourself talking about anything other than your religious beliefs, start over. No talking about the effects of toxins on the body. No talking about politics… your argument needs to be religion-based, so stick to the Bible.” Acknowledging the existence of other, but more likely to be rejected, reasons, she encourages readers to manipulate school administrators with something they can’t say no to: a religious appeal. If they did, who knows what kind of litigation they would get tied up in. You can’t prevent someone from practicing their religion. That’s simply unconstitutional.

Redshaw even gives readers a line they could essentially copy word for word in their requests: “[I am] objecting to vaccines because [I] believe in and follow God and the principles laid out in His Word and [I] have a deeply held belief that vaccines violate them.” Manipulation at its finest.

As mentioned before, freedom to practice religion exists in many countries such as the United States. However, when it puts the lives of every child in the school at risk, concerns should arise. The right to practice one’s religion ends when it starts to harm others. Additionally, the fact that an article was needed to be written to train people to write an exemption email is proof that in this case, religion is just a tool to further an agenda and isn’t the true concern in this scenario.

Like with Bach’s organization, religious exemptions don’t just affect the people who ask for them; they affect every single person that comes into contact with that person and their families (if the family members are also exempted). The ability of people to just say no to vaccines by utilizing tenuous religious logic puts so many people in danger and has caused countless outbreaks of easily preventable diseases such as the recent measles outbreak in New York. In that case, the emergency spurred Governor Andrew M. Cuomo to eliminate religious exemptions, but many other have yet to follow in suit.

These two examples demonstrate people’s usage of their own religion to, even if not intentionally, harm others. Unfortunately, the extent of religion’s role, even in secular societies, doesn’t end there. Religion has infiltrated the political sphere in numerous countries and has harmed the lives of countless individuals. A prominent example is the use of Christian (and other religious) scriptures to rationalize death penalties for, hate crimes towards, and traumatic therapies for the LGBTQ+ community.

LGBTQ+ people just want to love who they want to love and identify with their true gender, but God doesn’t seem to be having any of that. In the Bible, the lines “If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act” (Leviticus 20:13) appear, urging Christians to only engage in sexual acts with those of the opposite sex.

Though the interpretation of this line is heavily disputed as the word “homosexuality” didn’t even show up in English Bibles until 1946, and some argue that male means “boy” (so the line would condemn pedophilia), the common interpretation of this line (along with others that are said to denounce homosexuality) has fueled outrage towards the mere act of identifying as a different gender than that assigned at birth or having so-called “unconventional” sexual/romantic orientations.

Although there have been many advancements in LGBTQ+ rights such as the recent legalization of same-sex marriage in Taiwan, engaging in acts of homosexuality is still illegal in 35% of countries. And even in that 65% of countries that don’t ban homosexuality itself, many have retaliated against LGBTQ+ people in other ways such as even upholding LGBTQ+ discrimination when doing things as simple as buying a wedding cake.

That’s right. Last year, a Supreme Court case in the U.S., Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, addressed the question of whether a bakery owner, Jack Phillips, could deny a gay couple’s request to make their wedding cake on the basis of his own religious beliefs. Although the Colorado Civil Rights Commission ruled that Phillips had engaged in discriminatory actions, Phillips appealed to the state (which agreed with the Commission) and then the Supreme Court which actually reversed the Commission’s ruling on a 7–2 decision. SCOTUS ruled in favor of the baker, a win for him but a huge setback for the LGBTQ+ community.

In this situation, it may seem trivial. Just a wedding cake, right? But, the anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric spreads even farther with the religious right pushing others (including politicians) to deny gay couples the rights to adopt a child, ban transgender people from going to the bathroom of the sex they most closely identify with, and even kick their own children out of their house.

While in the last example, the child likely adheres to the same religion as their parents, it still doesn’t excuse the fact that someone’s religious ideologies could triumph over their love of their child or the fact that that child is now in danger because of their parent’s religious beliefs. And in other situations where the recipient of the hate might not adhere to the same religion, why is it okay?

How come a certain person’s religious beliefs can dictate how another person lives their life? Especially since someone’s gender identity and sexual/romantic orientations does not affect the lives of those who don’t want to get involved. If two people are in a same-sex marriage, it has no effect on those around them. Those other people aren’t in the marriage, so who those two people love does not affect their lives. While relatives may be involved, it’s not their relationship, and either way, that question is something for the family to discuss, not something for the law to answer.

Overall, the relationship between religion and politics, daily lives, etc has been blurred over the course of many years. Though in countries such as the U.S., the church and state are purportedly separate, debates about topics such as LGBTQ+ rights, sex education, and more stem from the anger that religious adherents feel about a contradiction with their religious ideologies — not others’. And of course, let’s not forget those who go off to disrupt and even destroy others’ lives because of their so-called callings. Like Renee Bach and anti-vaxxers. Or that guy who followed his “calling” to a prohibited island to convert its inhabitants to Christianity (and lost his life as a result). Talk about going to extremes.

There are ways to overcome these issues, of course. While most of it likely should be done at the state or national levels, there is still much for individuals to do. For those who follow a religion, be proud of the beings and ideologies you believe in but don’t forget that not everyone believes in the same ideals as you. When you act upon your beliefs, recognize where its effect on you ends and its effect on others starts. It’s an amazing thing to believe in the existence of a more powerful being, but remember that it’s your responsibility to ensure that your beliefs don’t end up hurting others. So, let’s do away with using “in the name of God” as an excuse and choose “in the name of love” instead. Or “in the name of dogs.” Either works.