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Glendon cautions on consequences of devaluing religious freedom
By Mary Loftus | Emory Law | May 24, 2016 9:05:00 AM

April L. Bogle: abogle(at), 404.712.8713

Elaine Justice: elaine.justice(at), 404.727.0643

As the U.S. Supreme Court prepares this week to hear a case on whether a Michigan school run by a Lutheran church is subject to a federal law banning discrimination based on a disability, Harvard Law Professor Mary Ann Glendon raises a broad concern about religious freedom in America: Contrary to those who fear that the religious right is taking over and we are on the verge of a “faith-based” America, religion and religious freedom are actually the values in danger, she says.

 Glendon outlined her argument in a lecture hosted by Emory University’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion (CSLR) in late September. “What hangs in the balance is nothing less than whether religion will be a destabilizing force in our increasingly diverse society or whether religion could help to hold together the two halves of the divided soul of American democracy,” said Glendon, Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University and former U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican.

Religious people, groups, and church-affiliated institutions are facing challenges on all fronts today, from non-discrimination lawsuits to a reduced influence in society, Glendon explained.

“Is religious freedom becoming a lesser right, one that can be easily overridden by other rights, claims, and interests?” she asked.  

Glendon cited three trends that are troubling her:

An alarming increase in religious persecution around the world.

Nearly 70 percent of the world’s people live in countries where there are “high restrictions” on religious freedom, according to a recent international survey by The Pew Forum. “Not surprisingly, the brunt of these restrictions falls on religious minorities. Worldwide, 75 percent of victims of violent religious persecution are Christian,” Glendon added.

The erosion of conscience protection for religious individuals and institutions.

Although the threats are much less dramatic in the United States and Western Europe, Glendon said religious freedom is still at risk from more subtle threats such as “restrictions on the autonomy of religious institutions and inroads on the rights of parents regarding the education of their children.”

The reduction of the influence of religion in society.

Disillusionment with organized religion is widespread, she said, and a growing “individualization of faith” is apparent in the United States and elsewhere, with more than 15 percent of Americans “declining to affiliate with any organized religion,” and 24 to 33 percent describing themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”

Glendon pointed out that this movement away from organized religion gives “short shrift” to worship communities and social settings where “religious beliefs and practices are generated, regenerated, nurtured, and transmitted from one generation to the next.”

Religion is not inherently divisive, she said. Rather, the political influence of religion often fosters democracy, reconciliation, peace, and human rights, while religious values tend to encourage respect and concern for others, discourage consumerism and hedonism, and provide a legacy of justice and love. Religious groups offer tangible societal benefits as well, such as education, health care, child care, and employment.

She encourages religious believers and leaders to practice respect and tolerance, to promote the responsible exercise of religious freedom and to resist “divide-and conquer” strategies that, if successful, “could install secularism as the established religion of the United States.”

America is a country torn between its love of individual freedom and its sense of belonging to a community for which we all have responsibility, she added, but a society that aspires to be both “free and compassionate cannot afford to neglect the health of what some call the principal seedbeds of character and competence: families, religious groups, and other communities of memory and mutual aid.”

Glendon’s lecture was the second of five in CSLR’s When Law and Religion Meet Lecture Series 2011-2012, which focuses on critical questions creating battles in courtrooms, legislatures, and places of worship. The lectures take place at Emory University School of Law, Tull Auditorium. Remaining lectures in the series:

January 25, 12:30 p.m.
John Witte, Jr.: “Shari'a in the West? What Place for Religious Family Law in America and Other Western Democracies”

February 8, 12:30 p.m.
Luke Timothy Johnson: "Jesus and the Law of Marriage and Divorce"

March 21, 12:30 p.m.
Michael J. Perry: "Freedom of Religion, Same-Sex Marriage, and the Catholic Church”


The Center for the Study of Law and Religion (CSLR) at Emory University ( is home to world-class scholars and forums on the religious foundations of law, politics, and society. It offers first-rank expertise on how the teachings and practices of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have shaped and can continue to transform the fundamental ideas and institutions of our public and private lives. The scholarship of CSLR faculty provides the latest perspectives, while its conferences and public forums foster reasoned and robust public debate.

Emory University ( is known for its demanding academics, outstanding undergraduate experience, highly ranked professional schools and state-of-the-art research facilities. Emory encompasses nine academic divisions as well as the Carlos Museum, The Carter Center, the Yerkes National Primate Research Center and Emory Healthcare, Georgia’s largest and most comprehensive health care system.