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Religious Liberty

The Issue

Americans remain a deeply religious people. The vast majority of Americans believe in God or a higher being, and many say that they pray daily. By providing education, health care, and countless social services, religious groups play an indispensable role in the health of society. Religious individuals and institutions have a right to exercise their religious beliefs that is not confined to the private sphere but is protected from government burden and discrimination in public life.

The ability to work, live, and provide services compatible with one’s beliefs is essential for maintaining a just and free society, yet this freedom has suffered erosion in recent years. America must return to a more reasonable and historically accurate understanding of religious liberty, upholding religious and moral conscience as an invaluable support for healthy republican government and human flourishing. This requires that government respect the role of religious institutions and refrain from establishing religion or prohibiting its free exercise.

The American Founders believed that strong religious congregations and vibrant faith communities were essential to ordered liberty. As a result, Americans have long enjoyed the fullest religious liberty in the world and have reaped the benefits of a flourishing civil society rooted in that religious freedom. Policymakers must restore a strong and stable society of individual and political self-government in which the people can give religious and faith-based institutions a central place in our civic and public life.


Understand and Promote the Benefits of Religious Practice to Civil Society. Religious practice promotes the well-being of individuals, families, and the community. Regular attendance at religious services is linked to healthy, stable family life, strong marriages, and positive outcomes for children. It correlates with reduced rates of domestic abuse, crime, substance abuse, and addiction and an increase in physical and mental health, longevity, and educational attainment. Americans engaged in the free exercise of religion participate actively in charitable giving and volunteerism, including through organized volunteering and informal acts of compassion. Yet, despite the societal benefits of religion, the expression of faith in the public square has faced many challenges posed by the never-ending growth of the regulatory state. The law must make as much room as possible for the practice and accommodation of religious faith.

Protect the Freedom of Conscience of Patients, Parents, and Employers. The right of Americans to live and work in accordance with their religious beliefs is increasingly under assault, especially from burdensome government policies. For example, many provisions of Obamacare weaken family choice of coverage, undermine parental participation in minor children’s health care decisions, and undercut family values in health care. The law’s anti-conscience mandate forces countless religious organizations, family businesses, and other employers to provide health plans that include coverage of abortion-inducing drugs, contraception, and sterilization—regardless of their religious or moral objections.

Policymakers should enact permanent conscience protections for individuals, families, employers, and insurers to keep them from being forced to offer, provide, or pay for coverage that violates their deeply held beliefs. To truly protect religious liberty and further erosions of freedom more generally, Obamacare must be repealed. Health care reform must move to a patient-centered, market-based system that provides coverage choices that are consistent with providers’ and patients’ moral and religious beliefs.

Protect the Freedom of Individuals and Institutions to Continue Telling the Truth About Marriage. Redefining marriage has been a direct and demonstrated threat to religious freedom that marginalizes those who affirm marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Already, in Washington, DC, Illinois, and Massachusetts, faith-based adoption and foster care organizations have given up the good work they were doing on behalf of vulnerable children because the government would have forced them to place children with same-sex couples—regardless of their religious or moral objections. Family businesses like photographers, bakers, florists, and others involved in the wedding industry have been hauled into court and fined, with some being forced out of business entirely, because they declined to provide their services for a same-sex ceremony in violation of their religious beliefs. Now that the Supreme Court has mandated the redefinition of marriage in all 50 states, policymakers should ensure that Americans who still believe the truth about marriage remain free to promote marriage as a union of a man and a woman, and are not subject to government discrimination because of these beliefs.

Oppose Policies, Regulations, and Guidance Providing Special Privileges Based on “Sexual Orientation” and “Gender Identity” (SOGI). All citizens should oppose unjust discrimination, but regulations and laws making sexual orientation and gender identity new protected classes are bad public policy. SOGI laws threaten fundamental First Amendment rights. They create new, subjective protected classes that will expose citizens to unwarranted liability. Furthermore, SOGI laws would increase government interference in labor markets in ways that could harm the economy. Yet SOGI’s damage is not only economic: It would further weaken the marriage culture and the freedom of citizens and their associations to affirm their religious or moral convictions, such as that marriage is the union of one man and one woman and that maleness and femaleness are not arbitrary constructs but objective ways of being human. SOGI laws would treat expressing or living out these beliefs in employment, business, school, and health care, among other fields, as actionable discrimination.

Promote Religious Freedom Abroad. To win hearts and minds to democracy, advance freedom, and promote stability, U.S. foreign policy and public diplomacy should systematically engage religious audiences and address the role of religion. Such active diplomacy bolsters the United States’ powerful model of religious freedom and is crucial to America’s role in the world. The United States should press all governments to recognize the universal right of religious liberty. Religious freedom should be the rule for all, not the exception enjoyed by a majority.

Facts and Figures

  • Three in five adults say they have no doubt that God exists. Altogether, about nine in 10 adults believe in God or some higher power.
  • On average, individuals who reported attending religious services once a week or more were 25 percent more likely to give to charitable causes than those who reported attending religious services less than a few times a year.
  • Marriages in which both husband and wife attend church frequently were 2.4 times less likely to end in divorce than marriages in which neither spouse attends religious services.
  • Volunteerism among individuals who attend religious services each week tends to be greater than the national average and among those who attend less frequently.

Selected Additional Resources

Ryan T. Anderson, “ENDA Threatens Fundamental Civil Liberties,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2857, November 1, 2013.

Ryan T. Anderson, “Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) Laws Threaten Freedom,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 3082, November 30, 2015.

Ryan T. Anderson and Leslie Ford, “Protecting Religious Liberty in the State Marriage Debate,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2891, April 10, 2014.

Patrick F. Fagan, “Why Religion Matters Even More: The Impact of Religious Practice on Social Stability,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1992, December 18, 2006.

Mark David Hall, “Religious Accommodations and the Common Good,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 3058, October 26, 2015.

Jennifer A. Marshall, “Religious Liberty in America: An Idea Worth Sharing Through Public Diplomacy,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2230, January 15, 2009.

Jennifer A. Marshall, “Understanding American Liberty,” The Heritage Foundation, December 19, 2012.

Jennifer A. Marshall, “Why Does Religious Freedom Matter?” Heritage Foundation Understanding America Series Report, December 2010.

Jennifer A. Marshall and Christine Kim, 2015 Index of Culture and Opportunity: The Social and Economic Trends that Shape America, The Heritage Foundation.

Ryan Messmore, “Religious Freedom Is Not Just for Churches,” Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 3383, October 4, 2011.

Thomas M. Messner, “From Culture Wars to Conscience Wars: Emerging Threats to Conscience,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2543, April 13, 2011.

Roger Severino and Ryan T. Anderson, “Proposed Obamacare Gender Identity Mandate Threatens Freedom of Conscience and the Independence of Physicians,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder, forthcoming.