Institutional Religious Freedom in Context

In the United States we commonly think of religious freedom as an individual liberty, and at its most basic level, it is. It is individual persons who believe and have faith, and no one can trust for another, pray for another, worship for another, or love for another.

The social nature of persons means that religious freedom will also have essential corporate components.

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Institutional Religious Freedom: Negotiating Diverse Convictions and Societal Harms

In the West today, religious freedom is often viewed as providing a license to discriminate: It shields bigoted acts of unequal treatment by allowing some, claiming the protection of religious motives, to mistreat others. And such injustice is perpetrated especially by religious organizations, which claim the right to treat people—job applicants, employees, customers, patients, students, and others—according to the dictates of their animating beliefs, notwithstanding legal prohibitions on discrimination.

And yet, where there are deep differences of conviction, institutional religious freedom is indispensable to crafting a way for all to live together.

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Islam and Institutional Religious Freedom

In July 2019, Pew Research Center published a report on religious restrictions around the world. Although Muslim-majority countries constitute only about a quarter of all cases examined in the report, they constitute over three-quarters (18/22) of the cases “with most restrictive laws and policies toward religious freedom.”

In the Muslim world, exceptionally high levels of legal and governmental restrictions on religious freedom are directly associated with various socio-political problems, including limitations on freedom of speech, press, and assembly.

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Rights, Institutions, and Religious Freedom: Toward Clarity in the Midst of Controversy

One reason that institutional religious freedom has become so controversial in the United States in recent years relates to the American people’s historical understanding of rights as applying only to individuals. Contentious U.S. Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United and Hobby Lobby have also contributed to widespread suspicion about the general idea of institutional rights, especially in the form of recognizing the legal personhood of corporations.

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Realizing Religious Freedom in the Islamic World

I hope that my new book, Religious Freedom In Islam: The Fate of a Universal Human Right in the Muslim World Today, may help to cool tempers in a culture war over Islam that has been taking place in the West at least as far back as the attacks of September 11, 2001.

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