The Rapidian

Ethics and Religion Talk: Does religious freedom mean exemption from the law?

Proponents of "religious freedom" say that they should not be required to comply with laws that compel them to violate their religion (i.e., Obamacare requiring payment for birth control) divorce, contraception, abortion, marriage

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?


“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.


The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at More recent columns can be found on by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”


We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

Grand Rapids, Michigan

Grand Rapids, Michigan /Kiran Sood Patel

Wouldn't this allow religions to justify polygamy, race and sex discrimination, drug use, prostitution, or any other law they didn't like, to the detriment of civil society?

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

“Religious freedom is built into our Constitution and is constantly being tested. It is important that each case be deliberated on its own merit and adjudicated correctly. I don’t believe accommodating religious conviction necessarily opens the door to ill intent. But we must be ever vigilant. We have found that our nation’s courts have ruled incorrectly in these matters. But most times I think we get it close to right.

“A good example of religious freedom gone haywire is India’s allowance of religious communities to create their own law. This was done in the name of tolerance and appeasement. So up until a few weeks ago Triple Talaq was practiced by Muslims there. This allowed a man to legally dissolve his marriage simply by telling his wife he was divorcing her three times. Wives did not share this right. Thankfully, the government has now joined several Muslim majority nations and outlawed this practice. 

“Throughout our history people of faith have challenged our laws in favor of their beliefs and practices. The job of the courts is to decide if the behavior in question violates the rights of others or works against compelling interests of the state. When said practices counter our collective sense of fairness it is our responsibility to advocate opposition to them.”

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Adjutant Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

“Religious liberty and religious freedom are different. Liberty ‘is the right to engage in certain actions without control or interference by government or other power’. Freedom is ‘the power or right to act, speak or think as one wants’.

“The argument the Bishops of the United States make regarding religious liberty is essentially that the Catholic Church ought to be able to practice its faith tradition without government interference, especially in regard to matters of morality. The Bishops identify the following specific issues as problematic: 1) HHS mandate for sterilization, contraception, and abortion-inducing drugs; 2) Catholic foster care and adoptive services; 3) Immigration laws and policies; 4) Discrimination against small church congregations; 5) Discrimination against Catholic humanitarian services; and, 6) Christian students on campus. The Catholic Church is not asking to be exempt from civil laws but that these laws be both moral and ethical. The above list is a far cry from polygamy, race and sex discrimination, drug use, prostitution, etc., which are illegal most everywhere.

“Freedom to hold certain views is not of and in itself problematic. When that view becomes the only view at the cost of organizations that may be considered a service to society, that is a problem. One’s choice and use of words does, in fact, influence one’s position on issues.”

R. Scot Miller, who writes from an Anabaptist and Quaker Christian perspective, responds: 

“Religious freedom is a right maintained by the government of the United States. There is no biblical evidence that suggests to me that human or civil rights are God-given. Some faith communities believe that the cross of Jesus and ethics of the New Testament prioritize a care ethic to a justice and rights-based ethic. To carry one’s cross means to empty one’s self of privilege. To this end, Christians should consider rejecting federal funding and holding political office. If one cannot comply with laws that violate conscience, they must adjust their practices, choosing between violating the rights of others and faithfulness.

“Religious freedom allows churches to discriminate against those who violate or reject congregational beliefs. Such discrimination cannot be practiced in the public realm. A clerk in Kentucky refused to issue marriage licenses. Yet, she promised to uphold federal law by an oath to her god, and took government money to do the job. She is bound to protect civil rights as an agent of government, in fact, by her oath. Religious freedom does not underwrite Kim Davis’ faith, thus exempting her as a government official from honoring civil rights of others. Not issuing licenses violated federal law, as well as her oath to God to carry out all duties. Ethically, Kim Davis’ should have stepped down from the position.

“Rights are not the fullest expression of God’s love. The sacrifice of privilege that otherwise makes one the master of another’s choices or destiny is. Religious freedom is practicing one’s faith and accepting the consequences of such practices without being jailed or discriminated against by other persons. Churches and religious organizations have a right to do this until they serve the public with public funds rather than private. The Supreme Court may soon decide if private services in the public realm are religious services or unprotected by religious freedom claims. The apostle would have chosen jail. Read Philippians for insight.”

This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

The Rapidian, a program of the 501(c)3 nonprofit Community Media Center, relies on the community’s support to help cover the cost of training reporters and publishing content.

We need your help.

If each of our readers and content creators who values this community platform help support its creation and maintenance, The Rapidian can continue to educate and facilitate a conversation around issues for years to come.

Please support The Rapidian and make a contribution today.

Comments, like all content, are held to The Rapidian standards of civility and open identity as outlined in our Terms of Use and Values Statement. We reserve the right to remove any content that does not hold to these standards.