In my work as a religious freedom attorney, I defend people of all faiths—including those with whom I deeply disagree. For example, I once defended a Muslim mosque in Tennessee that was stopped by local zoning authorities from gathering in their new building for worship. Although zoning authorities had approved 20 Christian churches in a row, they said the mosque had to satisfy a higher legal standard because of the vocal opposition of its neighbors. In other words, the mosque faced stricter rules because it was unpopular.
My Christian friends often ask me why I defend religious freedom for non-Christians. But I think this case illustrates three reasons why all Christians should care about religious freedom for non-Christians.
The first reason is rooted in self-interest—namely, protecting religious freedom for non-Christians helps protect religious freedom for Christians. This is easy to see in the zoning context, where local governments restrict how land can be used. The mosque in my case happened to be unpopular with its neighbors in Tennessee. But I’ve represented multiple Christian churches that were unpopular in their local communities. For example, I represented a small church in Texas that was blocked from using a vacant building because local authorities wanted more tax revenue. I also represented a church in Colorado that was stopped from expanding because local officials vowed “there will never be another mega-church in . . . Boulder County.”
The same legal principles apply to all of these cases. So if the government blocks a mosque based on the hostility of neighbors in Tennessee, it creates a precedent for blocking a church based on the hostility of tax-hungry officials in Texas. Conversely, if a court protects the mosque, it sets a precedent that protects churches. In fact, when I won the zoning case against the Texas town, the court relied primarily on a precedent involving a Jewish synagogue in Florida. A victory for a Jewish synagogue led to a victory for Christian church.
The same principle also works in reverse: a loss for non-Christians often leads directly to losses for Christians. The most famous example is the landmark Employment Division v. Smith case, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the government could punish Native Americans for using peyote in their religious ceremonies. The precedent set in Smith has led directly to losses in numerous religious freedom cases, including for Christians—demonstrating that religious freedom for Native Americans is vitally important for Christians.
In a very real sense, then, if we ignore religious freedom for Muslims, Native Americans, Jews, and others, we’re undermining it for ourselves. And if we defend religious freedom for non-Christians, we’re defending it for ourselves.
The second reason we should care about religious freedom for non-Christians is rooted in evangelism—namely, protecting religious freedom for non-Christians helps more non-Christians come to Christ. This is a simple theological argument. Scripture doesn’t instruct us to use government power to make disciples. Neither Jesus nor the early church did so. Instead, we’re called to “preach Christ” in word and deed (1 Corinthians 1:23), trusting the Holy Spirit—not the government—to “convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8).
Using government power to suppress false religion is also counterproductive. Preventing a mosque from being built or preventing a Muslim from wearing a headscarf doesn’t bring any Muslims closer to Christ. At best, it may pressure them to feign Christianity—which is not a saving faith. At worst, it can harden them against Christ and entrench them even more deeply in non-Christian religion.
By contrast, defending religious freedom for non-Christians can lead directly to opportunities for sharing the gospel. I’m now good friends with the imam from the Tennessee mosque. We’ve had multiple conversations about the differences between Christianity and Islam. He tries to convince me the doctrine of the Trinity makes no sense; I try to convince him we can’t earn God’s favor and must turn to Jesus as our savior instead. I never would have had that opportunity if I hadn’t defended his religious freedom.
The third reason to care about religious freedom for non-Christians is an argument based on justice—namely, protecting religious freedom for non-Christians is the right thing to do. A violation of religious freedom is an act of injustice because God created each one of us for a loving relationship with him. This relationship can’t be coerced by the government; it can only be entered into voluntarily. So when the government needlessly interferes in our relationship with God, it is exceeding its God-given authority and depriving human beings of the God-given opportunity to respond freely to him.
A violation of religious freedom is also a violation of basic human rights. All human beings are born with a religious impulse—a desire to seek and embrace transcendent truth. But by our very nature, we can seek and embrace the truth authentically only if we do so freely. So when the government coerces us to go against our understanding of transcendent truth, it is forcing us to go against our very nature as human beings and is violating a human right.
This analysis doesn’t depend on the understanding of transcendent truth we embrace. It applies to everyone—even those who are mistaken about transcendent truth. This is not because we’re relativists but because we believe a particular absolute truth: God created us for a relationship with him that cannot be entered via coercion.
In short, ask not why I defend religious freedom for non-Christians. Ask how you can too.
Adapted from Free to Believe: The Battle Over Religious Liberty in America . Copyright © 2019 by Luke Goodrich. Used by permission of Multnomah, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
Read Christianity Today’s review of the book.
Luke Goodrich is author of Free to Believe: The Battle Over Religious Liberty in America and vice president and senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty where he has won numerous precedent-setting cases in courts across the country, including multiple Supreme Court victories for clients like the Little Sisters of the Poor and Hobby Lobby. Goodrich appears frequently in the media to discuss religious freedom, including on Fox News, CNN, PBS, NPR, and The New York Times. He also teaches an advanced course in constitutional law at the University of Utah law school. For more information, visit lukegoodrich.com.