Why we must protect the religious liberty of social institutions
Acton Institute Powerblog

Why we must protect the religious liberty of social institutions

Note: This article is part of the ‘Principles Project,’ a list of principles, axioms, and beliefs that undergird a Christian view of economics, liberty, and virtue. Click here to read the introduction and other posts in this series.

The Principle: #4F — Social institutions have religious liberty that must be protected.

The Definitions:
Religious liberty — The freedom to believe and exercise or act upon religious conscience without unnecessary interference by the government. (Source)

Social institutions —Groups of persons banded together for common purposes having rights, privileges, liabilities, goals, or objectives distinct and independent from those of individual members. (Source)

The Explanation: Is religious liberty only for individuals or is also for social institutions?

Over the past decade, that question has become surprisingly contentious. While most Americans recognize, sometimes grudgingly, that the U.S. Constitution protects the religious freedom of individuals, many disagree that such rights should be granted to social institutions—particularly for-profit corporations. What such people do not see is that when we deny this liberty to social institutions we are denying it to individuals too.

To understand why this is true, let’s consider another freedom protected by the First Amendment: freedom of speech.

Imagine if the government said that while individuals could practice freedom of speech, social institutions could not. We would quickly see how such a restriction would limit—and may even abolish—the free expression of the individual.

Consider a playwright. She might have the freedom to write a scorching criticism of the state or religious institutions, but few people would hear about it. The government could prohibit publishers from printing the text, theater companies from putting on the play, and newspapers from reporting on the content of the work. She might be allowed to stand in the public square and read it aloud, but most other forms of expression would require the help of a social institution.

The same is true for religious liberty. Individuals who cannot express their religious views collectively do not have freedom of religion. As Ryan Messmore explains,

Why is religious liberty important for institutions? Because of our relational nature as humans.

We are relational beings at our core. Everyone exists in some form of relationship to others. In fact, we become who we are—we develop our own unique habits and views—in the context of these relationships. We need to think of ourselves and others not merely as self-standing individuals but as persons in community.

There is something deep within human nature that prompts us to seek out membership in communities of purpose—to desire to be on the inside of a meaningful group and to participate in something larger than oneself. This “quest for community,” as Robert Nisbet calls it, plays out largely through social institutions.

In their essence, institutions are structured relationships. They are habits of activity that bind people together in a common purpose through time.

As with other rights, it is sometimes necessary to curtail the absolute freedom of religious practice to promote the greater flourishing of society. But curtailment of certain practices does not negate the necessity of defending the religious liberty of social institutions. If we allow unnecessary restrictions, or even outright bans, on the ability of social institutions to practice religion, we will soon find we have lost the freedom altogether.

The Additional Info: A particularly controversial area of this issue is the inclusion of for-profit corporations in the list of social organizations whose religious liberty should be protected. In an article in the Harvard Law Review, Alan Meese and Nate Oman make the case for why even for-profit corporations, should be afforded the same religious freedoms as individuals. A few of the key points from their argument are:

• The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that for-profit corporations are constitutional “persons.”

• Nothing about limited liability or entity status justifies stripping corporations, whether for-profit or non-profit, of their religious personhood. Therefore, shareholders’ ability to pursue their religious values via the corporate form should not turn on whether they have forsaken limited liability.

• When individuals act religiously using corporations they are engaged in religious exercise. When we regulate corporations we in fact burden the individuals who use the corporate form to pursue their goals.

• Religious freedom is broader than an individualist concern with personal rights. Rather, it is about limiting the ability of the state to regulate a particular kind of conduct — religious exercise — even when corporate bodies engage in that conduct.

• People practice religion collectively. To protect religion only within the confines of personal conscience or individual action would do great violence to lived religion.

• Many for-profit corporations are infused with religious values and religious missions. Some for-profit corporations are solely owned by churches. The owners of these corporations can feel called on to infuse their business activities with religious values.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).