The Best Short Defense of Religious Liberty I’ve Heard

By Sean McDowell Published on August 2, 2017

As John Stonestreet and I argue in our book Same-Sex Marriage, we are going through one of the most sweeping social revolutions in world history. Virtually every culture in the world has understood marriage as a union of a man and a woman. Then came the Obergefell v. Hodges SCOTUS decision in 2015. Now this has changed.

Marriage has been redefined. The law, our schools, and other social customs have begun to change as well. As a result, there’s a great tension between religious liberty and claims of discrimination. Can Catholic adoption agencies work according to their convictions that marriage is the union of a man and a woman? Or does this discriminate against gay couples who want to adopt? Should the law force people to use others’ preferred gender pronouns?

Is Liberty Worth Protecting?

At the heart of this debate is whether or not religious liberty is worth protecting. Does the state have an interest in preserving religious liberty? In my experience, few people (including religious people) understand why religious freedom is so valuable for both the government and society.

I recently read Debating Religious Liberty and Discrimination. It’s a thoughtful and respectful dialogue between Ryan T. Anderson and Sherif Girgis on the one side, and John Corvino on the other. In their opening remarks, Anderson and Girgis offer a brief case for the state’s interest in preserving religious freedom. It’s the best I have heard.

While this certainly won’t end debate, it’s the starting point of an argument that must be heard. Here it is:

A Simple Case for Religious Liberty

For all their differences, [a] splendid range of people from every corner of every culture across thousands of years [Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Muslims, etc.] would agree that much hangs on exploring religious questions and living by the answers. Even those who end up atheists or agnostic are compelled to search by a sense of the value of achieving harmony with whatever ultimate source of meaning there might be.

As a basic human good, religion consists of efforts to align your life with the truth about whatever transcendent source (or sources) of being, meaning, and value there might be. It’s about efforts to honor or find harmony with that source — call it the “divine.” Relationship with the divine, like human friendship, must be freely chosen to be authentic. To coerce is to produce a counterfeit. So respect for your basic interest in religion demands respect for your freedom in pursuing it. For this basic good, religious liberty is a precondition.

And hence the state, which exists to protect the ability of people to pursue all the basic goods, must never directly attack this freedom. It must never require or forbid an act on religious grounds — for example, on the ground that its religious rationale is true or false, or that the associated religious community should shrink or grow. But the same basic good also requires the state to avoid needless incidental limits on religious freedom. These arise where your faith calls for you to shape your whole life by the divinity’s demands: in preaching and conversion, pilgrimage and prayer, building and worship, ritual and ascetical struggle, charitable work and Sabbath rest. All of these might conflict with legitimate laws. The state can’t avoid a conflict every time. It has to protect the wide range of basic goods for all of society, even at the expense of some instances of them, religion included. But because religion, like moral integrity, is itself one of the basic goods to be protected, the state should avoid imposition on wherever reasonably possible.



Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, best-selling author, popular speaker, part-time high school teacher, and the Resident Scholar for Summit Ministries, California. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog:

Adapted with permission from

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  • Paul

    “And hence the state, which exists to protect the ability of people to pursue all the basic goods….”

    This premise needs exploring. It may be what you want but doesn’t quite reflect how things are. I doubt most people really think through what is the role and purpose of govt, and that belief is central to this debate.

    • Kevin Quillen

      the role of government is to “seek and do justice”. The question is…..where do we get our concept of justice? Did justice and morality evolve? NO. There is only matter according to darwinists/humanists. The founding fathers knew where the concept of justice came from, hence, unalienable rights.

      • Paul

        Stalin, Lenin, Mao and Hitler are all recent examples of leaders who saw a different role of govt. There’s been millennia of dictators whose concept of govt was the ruthless pursuit of power and dominion. The point being is the ideas of the purpose of govt being to “protect the ability of people to pursue all the basic goods” or “seek and do justice” have not been universally held in human history, even today as we watch events in Venezuela, Syria, Turkey and elsewhere. It would seem that one constant is that power corrupts.

  • Tim from Montana

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,
    that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,
    that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. —
    That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men,
    deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

  • JeffersonSpinningInGrave

    The argument leans heavily on social utility. That’s fine, as far as it goes. However, basic individual freedoms, which the bill of rights protects from government infringement, should not be subject to arguments based on social utility. What is in the best interests of a society, according to a majority at any given time, is just too subjective and mutable in too many cases.

    • JP

      How could homosexual “marriage” be good for society when the reality is these are not real marriages?

      • JeffersonSpinningInGrave

        I don’t understand how this relates to my comment. Please explain.

  • tz1

    The hypocrisy is that some things people don’t like aren’t considered covered.
    Consider the unassailable “Civil Rights Act”. I have no problem with the provisions on Government but it basically destroys the freedom of association. You may not like racism, etc. but now you can be forced to serve someone of a different race (and add gender – all 57 varieties – orientation, disability, etc). whether you wish to or not by the excuse of the malleable “public accomidation”.
    Worse, back in 1983, Bob Jones U lost a court case which said the IRS could use the 501c3 for public policy. They believed that miscegany was a sin, so they lost their exemption. Now that gay marriage is law? The push for trans-locker/rest/changing rooms?
    When they came for Bob Jones U – I spoke up on principle, but I was a lone, isolated voice. Now that “we’re all Bob Jones now”, we can’t speak up, else we too would lose our tax exemption. Which is more important than principle or the gospel.

    • Kevin Quillen

      I have been advocating for some time for all churches to give up their tax exemption, and speak boldly for the Gospels sake.

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