We are at the dawn of the Easter Triduum, the midway point of Ramadan and closing in on Passover. As people of faith across the country focus more intentionally on their spiritual lives, it’s a good time to reflect on religious liberty.
These three holidays, practiced by people of three different faiths — Christian, Muslim and Jewish — nonetheless have much in common. All involve fasting, abstinence, reflection, self-sacrifice, and prayer. All will impose obligations on their adherents that conflict in some way with professional and public obligations.
Over two years into the pandemic, Americans resoundingly believe that religious activities at houses of worship should be considered essential over secular activities. In fact, two activities that most Americans said should be considered essential during a pandemic were worship and funerals, with other religious ceremonies and community service following close behind and secular activities like protests and concerts trailing in comparison.
There is something about religion that Americans recognize as somehow different and more important. Maybe they can’t put their finger on exactly why, or maybe they struggle to articulate it. It’s simply something they know instinctively. Here’s the not-so-secret reason: the religious impulse is natural to humans.
The search for truth, for answers to life’s biggest questions, leads humans to choose a spiritual framework for seeing the world and their place in it. That framework underlies the decisions we make about how we live and work. For many, the journey leads to organized religion. That’s why religious freedom holds such a special place in our country.
Too often, government or big companies fail to recognize the important role religion plays in Americans’ lives, though there’s evidence that companies are catching on to the importance of religious accommodations for employees.
That Americans prioritized religious activities over secular ones during a pandemic provides a stark contrast to the COVID restrictions placed on houses of worship by local and state governments— rules that were both more restrictive and longer-lasting than those placed on many secular venues and businesses. Meanwhile, an ongoing case dealing with religious accommodations at work highlights another example of discord, this time between what Americans believe and what a multibillion-dollar company wants.
These are real conflicts that affect real people. Seventy-five percent of Americans support the freedom to practice one’s faith in the workplace, whether by wearing religious clothing or resting on the Sabbath. When Ed Hedican was offered an assistant manager job at Walmart, he asked that his Sabbath observance be accommodated. (In the Seventh-day Adventist tradition, Sabbath is observed from Friday at sundown to Saturday at sundown.) Hedican offered to work any other time of the week, including nights and long shifts.
But Walmart rescinded his job offer, saying that to accommodate his religious practice would be an “undue hardship” on the company. It is absurd to think that accommodating religious employee’s schedules would be an undue hardship for a company with almost $600 billion in annual revenue. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for Walmart, but the Supreme Court just ordered that court to take another look.
Americans of faith are fortunate to live in a country with robust religious liberty protections. But the religious freedom violations that do occur — like the unfair treatment of churches during the pandemic, or Hedican’s uphill battle for a simple accommodation — show that we still have work to do. In these coming days of spiritual reflection, I encourage people of faith to spare a prayer for religious freedom.
Katie Geary is the editor of the Becket Fund’s religious liberty podcast Stream of Conscience and co-editor of Becket’s annual Religious Freedom Index. Listen to her interview about Becket’s 2021 Religious Freedom Index on the First Things podcast.
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