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What Religious Freedom Really Means

My community elected Mary* to our school board several years ago. She ran as a conservative Christian determined to bring Christian values back to our public education. Huge embarrassing failure. We discovered too late that she actually wanted to institute Christian theocracy in our community – prayer in schools, bible-based education, the works. Her outrageous behavior demonstrated either appalling ignorance or bald-faced disregard for the policies and procedures that are supposed to guide school board members. Her clashes with fellow board members and school administration made regional news regularly.

By far the most reprehensible episode of her four years in office centered around a request made by some Muslim high school students. During the season of Ramadan, Muslims do not eat or drink from dawn until dusk. Students who were observing Ramadan petitioned our high school for a room separate from the dining commons in which they could spend their lunch hour, since they were not eating. The superintendent provided the room to the students, and Mary went on the warpath.


She not only attacked the decision to provide a separate room during lunch, but she expressed her opinion that Muslim students shouldn’t be in the public schools at all.  One local paper quoted her as saying she thought Muslim students should have their own special schools that were separate, but equal.

Yeah. I couldn’t believe it either.

I decided to contact her directly, since I had met her once, long before she was elected. I wanted to find out if the media had misquoted her and spun the situation. I emailed to ask why she disagreed with the superintendent’s decision, and how that fit with her Christian faith and our constitution’s protection of religious freedom.

She replied that she refused to grant requests of other faiths that would be refused to Christians. She said that if Christian students requested space at school for something connected to their faith, the public school would never grant it to them. So she refused to do so for those of the Muslim faith. She responded to those she identified as her enemies the way she thought they would respond to her.

Prophetic retaliation — treat the people as badly as you predict they’ll treat you — is the polar opposite of the Golden Rule.

Somehow Mary had got it into her head that our U.S. constitution only guaranteed religious freedom for Christians, and that Christians need to proactively defend (I think you call such action offensive, not defensive) that freedom. I hope and pray this is not what lies behind this weekend’s fatal shooting at a Wisconsin Sikh Temple.

True religious freedom is for all faiths (and for those who reject faith).

Religious freedom does not mean everything in our society is “Bible-based.” We are not a theocracy. Have we not read the Old Testament? Can we not see how miserably that failed? Do we really think we’re so much better than the ancient Israelites? And are we so blind that we cannot understand how the prophetic retaliation undermines the very religious liberty our founding fathers fought to obtain?

Freedom means we have choices – legitimate choices between valid options – and that we won’t be mistreated based on our choices. Christians should be the most vocal passionate defenders of true religious freedom for all. We ought to be first to weep and help anyone mistreated for their faith. After all, not too long ago, we were the ones being persecuted and killed.

Prophetic retaliation and proactive defense invite justified anger towards us. More importantly, they are contrary to Jesus’s commands.

Jesus taught us to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek when we’re mistreated, to bring glasses of cold water to the thirsty, and to pray for those who hate us.

Yes, it’s weird. It’s radical and awkward and sometimes it looks and feels ridiculous. But Jesus doesn’t need us to stand up for him. He needs us to be his hands and feet, to show his uncomfortable unsettling love to the world. He told us we are to be a peculiar people. That peculiarity doesn’t look anything like revenge.

*name changed to protect the guilty


My thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of those killed in Wisconsin.


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  1. Very well put! Nothing much to add to that really, you said what I would say pretty much in probably a better way.

  2. Brian Jonson says:

    This was excellent. Thank you for this reminder.

    I used to get forwarded emails from a guy who always argued for Christian prayers in public schools. Fed up, I finally hit “reply all” and asked this question: “Since greater Detroit has the second highest Arabic population per capita in the world, I suspect you would be ok with them praying to Allah in those schools?” No one ever responded.

    Our founding fathers were wise; they wanted a nation that protected pluralism in religious views. It’s astonishing that so many Christians change the facts and think their efforts were to create a theocracy instead.

  3. You know, I’m fairly conservative and Christian and I can’t get behind this. Theocracy will not work if people are involved. Theo won’t sit on that throne.

  4. Brilliant post!

  5. Excellent piece, Joy. Good word.

  6. I was teaching high school world history in a public school the year September 11th happened. That spring I had a Muslim student ask me if they could use my classroom during lunch time for their Ramadan prayers. These kids needed a safe place, especially that year. Would I have preferred they attend Young Life and meet Jesus? Absolutely. But I also respected that these kids were trying to live out their faith and so I said yes. How can I as a person of deep faith deny another.

  7. Tanya Marlow says:

    Well said – it takes courage and boldness to not be defensive (or offensive) but being loving, even when it looks foolish.

  8. Wow! Excellent words. Thank you for sharing.

  9. I totally agree. I think people hide behind the label of Christian. My husband and I don’t agree with everything “Christian.” We live in a bible belt area where everyone votes because of what party they are labeled…not because of the person running in election. So many conversations are close minded because they are spoon fed what to believe and don’t think for themselves. Big mistake because the enemy sometimes hides in sheep clothing!

    • Exactly. We must keep thinking, learning, and growing. The question “why?” is a really healthy one to ask, even if I do get tired of hearing it from my kids! 🙂

  10. I think what I can say about this without blowing a gasket is that we tried separate but equal once before and it was anything but equal. Especially in the Deep South, we are continuing to reap the consequences of racially-segregated life, let alone education, from generations past. If we actually went down this road with Muslim students, we would eventually see the error of the way and then spend decades and millions of dollars trying to unravel it. We also tried internment camps with Japanese-Americans in World War II. To say that was a bad idea is an understatement.
    Helping create as welcoming an environment as possible for all students, regardless of background, is key to their potential success. The school-level folks did nothing wrong. I hope nothing of the sort this school board member suggests comes to pass in your community or elsewhere.

    • Fortunately, this school board member was alone in her efforts and opinions, and ultimately unsuccessful. She also lost her bid for re-election, to no one’s surprise. But I’m not sure anyone has gotten over it.