I just returned from a remarkable conference in Beijing sponsored by the Peking University Law School Center for Constitutional and Administrative Law and the Pu Shi Institute for Social Science. The conference focused on religious freedom issues around the world. It brought together some of the leading law and religion researchers from Asia, Europe, North America and South America. I gave four talks during the week focusing on law and religion in the United States and Japan (the two countries on which my research has primarily focused). I also listened to excellent talks from some wonderful colleagues and fielded excellent questions from Chinese professors, graduate students, and clergy.
My sense is that the U.S. is at a crossroads on religious freedom and could soon fall behind many other countries. In fact, China itself has begun to grapple with questions of religious freedom, and while certainly not an open country in that respect it is at least considering the possibility of increasing religious freedom. Meanwhile, in the U.S. the concept of religious freedom is under fire almost every day, and increasingly people seem to forget that most religious freedom claims have no impact on anyone other than the religious person or institution seeking protection. It was not long ago that the combination of religious freedom laws and protection under the Establishment Clause against government favoring religion created a system of religious freedom which served as a beacon to the world. That beacon seems to be dimming at the very time other countries increase their focus on protecting conscience and religious freedom.
I also had the chance to talk to colleagues from Europe and Asia about sexual freedom issues. The lack of anti-discrimination protection for members of the LGBT community in many parts of the U.S. and at a national level leaves us behind many of our European allies. Moreover, our legal treatment of transgendered individuals is far behind several Asian nations; although this is a remarkably complex question because the social dynamics in those nations do not always live up to the legal protections.
Of course, every nation is different, and as anyone who reads this blog knows the U.S. is in the midst of an increasingly stormy culture war. Yet, if we can increase protections for both religious freedom and sexual freedom we can navigate the current storm. If not, we may lose one or the other freedom over time, or we may batter both freedoms so badly that they stand as fractured concepts perpetually at war with each other. That is, of course, why we need to tread carefully on freedoms edge.