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Religious Freedom Laws: Has "Religion" Lost Its Meaning?

05/01/2015 02:54 pm ET | Updated Jun 30, 2015

Recently, a number of states have passed "Religious Freedom" laws. Democrats across the country have been critical of these statutes, arguing that they effectively give state residents license to discriminate against gays and lesbians. This is because "Religious Freedom" laws create a very high burden for the government to limit religious expression, which may include discriminatory beliefs.

The Democratic party happens to have introduced and passed an almost identical law for the entire country in 1993: the Religious Freedom Restoration Act ("RFRA"). Democrats created RFRA in response to a Supreme Court decision that held that Native American usage of peyote was prohibited by federal law, even though it was part of a religious, ritual practice. By heightening the burden on the federal government to limit a person's religious expression, the Democrats sought to ensure that potentially controversial ritual practices, like smoking peyote, would be protected.

At first glance, the current Democratic position may seem hypocritical: Democrats supported "Religious Freedom" legislation when it protected religious practices they did not find offensive -- Native American peyote ritual -- while condemning a nearly identical statute that may protect a religious activity they reject -- discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Another possibility, though, is that these statutes expose fundamentally different understandings of the meaning of the word "religion." For many, "religion" by definition cannot condone, let alone promote, hatred or discrimination. Senator Ted Kennedy, who introduced RFRA in the Senate, once said: "In our own history, religion has been falsely invoked to sanction prejudice -- even slavery -- to condemn labor unions and public spending for the poor."

This definition of "religion," which excludes hateful and discriminatory behavior -- activities deemed morally problematic -- also animated President Obama when he said recently: "No religion is responsible for terrorism." Not so, according to some terrorists.

In the words of Anwar al-Awlaki, the Islamist cleric who inspired the Fort Hood massacre and the failed 2009 underwear bombing: "If it is part of your freedom of speech to defame Muhammad, it is part of our religion to fight you."

Ambiguity around the meaning of "religion" is not just limited to the term's ethical contours. Some think the word necessarily denotes belief in a deity, while others suggest the term is more expansive, including non-theistic traditions like Buddhism. Even within the realm of those who limit the term to belief systems organized around a deity, there is great debate about what type of deity counts: Some believe the panentheistic conception of the mystics is "religious" while others argue that the term refers only to belief in a deity that is separate from the world.

It should not be surprising that "religion" has multiple meanings. All words are employed in ways that depend on the user's historical, cultural, and geographical context. But if words are to convey digestible ideas, they must have a central range of meaning that is shared.

The word "truck" may conjure up images of an eighteen wheeler or a pick-up, but few people would debate whether either vehicle is covered by the term. When such a shared understanding is lost, however, new words must replace ambiguous, old ones. In America, for example, the word "soccer" has been substituted for what the rest of the English speaking world refers to as "football." This happened because the word "football" stopped conveying any real content when it began to refer to two completely different sports.

"Religion" has become another "football." In order to convey which of the many definitions of "religion" we intend to use, we must replace it with more specific terminology or alternative words: Are we referring to a belief system centered on a deity? A tradition with ritual practices? A philosophy for understanding the world? An inherently moral way of life?

Increasing precision in our language around these questions will not only avoid ambiguity about the potential differences between RFRA and other "Religious Freedom" laws; it will also allow us to have more effective, clear communication in conversations around an issue of great cultural and political importance.