News Release

What Religious Freedom Means

Religious freedom is a fundamental freedom that runs deeper and reaches farther than many realize.

What Americans Know About Religious Freedom

Most Americans know that religious freedom is one of the most basic freedoms guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution. Frequently called the “first freedom,” freedom of religion is prominent in the American founding documents and gives rise to many other freedoms.

It is a fundamental human right — one that is now protected in the laws of many nations around the world and in global compacts like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). Americans generally recognize and revere religious freedom as one of the unalienable freedoms they can claim.

Yet despite Americans’ awareness of religious freedom and a common perception that it is something of profound worth, research suggests that many Americans aren’t entirely clear about what it means. As a result, they also don’t fully understand why it is so critical and what it requires.

Studies do suggest that most Americans grasp the basic concept. For the average citizen, religious freedom is the right enjoyed by many in the free world to believe the things about God and about moral truth that they choose to believe, as well as the right to honor those beliefs in worship, if they want to. Intuitively, this makes sense. It would not be right for someone to be coerced in matters of religious belief or morality, or prohibited from worshipping according to their conscience.1

The Rest of Religious Freedom

But while these private and inward activities are vital parts of religious freedom, they do not encompass the whole of it. Religious freedom is actually much broader and deeper than this description suggests. More fundamentally, religious freedom — akin to “freedom of conscience” — is the human right to think and believe and also to express and act upon what one deeply believes according to the dictates of his or her moral conscience. This freedom applies to those who adhere to religious beliefs and those who do not.

The full picture of religious freedom reveals a deep liberty that goes much further than the right to believe as one chooses and that extends well beyond the right to private devotion in one’s place of worship or home. Indeed, religious freedom is not merely interior and private, to be enjoyed internally in our minds and in the privacy of personal life. It also incorporates the right to act according to one’s moral beliefs and convictions. And more than the freedom to worship privately, it is the right to to live one’s faith freely and in public.

Beliefs lead to actions, and freedom to believe, without the ability to act on that belief within the bounds of law, is no freedom at all. Most will agree that moral and religious beliefs don’t mean much if they don’t influence the way we live. In other words, we expect religious beliefs to influence the way that people behave, how they raise families and how they treat others. And indeed, religious freedom protects the right of individuals to act in line with their religious beliefs and moral convictions. Religious freedom does not merely enable us to contemplate our convictions; it enables us to execute them.

Because of this, religion cannot be confined to the sphere of private life. Certainly religious freedom protects the rights of individuals to observe their religion within the walls of private spaces. But religious and moral speech is also protected in the free air of the public domain. Whether in the town hall, in the newspaper column, on the Internet or elsewhere in the public sphere, people with moral convictions are entitled by their religious freedom to share those convictions, to reason and persuade, and to advocate their vision for society.

Research suggests, in fact, that religious people in the United States contribute to, enrich and improve society. They tend to demonstrate a disproportionate level of social virtues like neighborliness, generosity, service and civic engagement. Hence it is not only required by religious freedom for religious people and their voices to be welcome in the public sphere; it strengthens the civic fabric of society.2

Practicing and Protecting Religious Freedom

The fact that religious freedom is public and that it involves more than mere belief does not, of course, mean that it overwhelms all other considerations in society. The purpose of a democracy is to accommodate the diverse interests of all its members. Religious freedom and freedom of conscience are vital because they help sustain this system of peaceful coexistence, and they must be balanced against other considerations, such as the rights of others, the law and public safety. However, because these freedoms are so fundamental to human dignity, and because they contribute so much to society, they merit careful protection.

Such protection is the responsibility of all citizens who value their freedom and recognize that one’s own freedoms are only as secure as those of others. Protecting religious freedom also requires that it is understood fully and respected in its entirety. An inadequate understanding of religious freedom can be problematic if it leads, for example, to policy and laws that define it too narrowly and protect it too feebly. Ignorance of religious freedom can also, without care, allow for it to be slowly and subtly eroded, leaving this fundamental liberty exposed or compromised. A robust sense of religious freedom — an appreciation for its full meaning — is required for it to endure and to flourish.


1. See “Survey Fact Sheet: What Americans Know About Religious Freedom,” American Religious Freedom Program, accessed January 14, 2012; and“What It Means to Be an American,” Brookings Institute and Public Religion Research Institute, accessed January 14, 2012.

2. See Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010).

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