It seems like freedom of religion has been roiling about a bit more than usual in the national consciousness, so I thought I'd take a poke at what I think is important in this idea and what it means for good governance. Basically, this is about a natural tension between the desire for people of faith to exercise their political will in accordance with their personal beliefs, and the need for government to permit, value and tolerate the beliefs of those outside the majority-faith.
Now, this is a real contradiction. People of faith should certainly be allowed to vote for policies in keeping with their beliefs, but those who don't share those beliefs shouldn't be prevented from practicing appropriately because of those policies. Tricky widget.
The tools that we bring to this challenge on behalf of people of faith are freedom of speech (& expression, & religion, & to assemble peaceably) and the idea of conscientious objection. But, in a nod to diversity, we constrain these freedoms in both scope and context. These constraints are the subject of much bickering--as they should be--so I kind of want to lay out the ones that I see and what I think of them.
1. People of faith cannot justify impeding the safety or freedom of others by citing religious practice.
This principle allows limiting or outlawing animal sacrifice, curbing faith sanctioned abuse and murder, and applying the fire code to religious buildings. Creationists can't squash the teaching of evolutionary fact (though boy do they love to try).
2. Conscientious objection is legal only when it is demonstrably non-opportunistic, and only exempts the objector from direct participation in the objectionable act.
This is clearly the case in wartime, where pacifists a) still pay taxes that support the war effort and b) often end up as medics or otherwise indirectly involved participants in the conflict.
3. Public institutions, offices, and officers acting in their official capacities are severely constrained in their ability to proselytize, endorse particular religions, or adopt explicitly sectarian practices. This seems primarily to be true of un-elected officials.
We're not always super successful at applying this rule, but it is certainly a general principal at work in our country.
Basically, I think that what's going on here is that we as a society recognize that the rights of others constrain our own rights, and observe a moral distinction between personal life and public service.
Some interesting general distinctions arise:
1. That the practice of faith can be properly limited to the personal, or limited to the community of the faithful.
2. That the right of the faithful to object is limited to the eschewing of direct action contrary to faith and the peaceful--read here as non-disruptive, as opposed to non-violent--protest of such actions (and of course the right to vote according to belief).
3. That the faith rights of individuals do not extend to the public institutions in which they serve, and the official capacities in which they act. When acting on behalf of the public, they must respect the constitutional constraints of church and faith.