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Quote of the Day: The Limits of Religious Freedom

torah bontrager

Freedom of religion and freedom of speech allow people to believe and say what they want in this country. But I know from firsthand experience that religiously driven myths reinforced by leaders can harm children’s lives and thwart their potential.

Like many Christian children, my Amish upbringing instilled in me the belief that Jesus’ return would be preceded by devastating conditions including floods, earthquakes, droughts, tornadoes, crop failures and fires — basically all the things climate change is unleashing. With no adequate education to temper these beliefs, fear of the coming apocalypse traumatized me. Had I stayed in the religion, recent weather patterns would no doubt have had me praying doubly hard.
When I escaped my community in Michigan in the middle of the night at age 15, I arrived in mainstream society laden with fears that had been reinforced through a limited Amish education that ended at the eighth grade. I’d acquired little secular knowledge thanks to a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court case Wisconsin vs. Yoder, which found that Wisconsin’s compulsory school attendance law was unconstitutional because it violated Amish parents’ rights to exercise their religion. As a result, I had no knowledge of science, sex education, or any subject contrary to Amish religious views. Had I not escaped, the Supreme Court ruling would have sealed my fate: becoming an ignorant Amish housewife.

My hunger for empirical answers to allay my fear of hell drove me to earn a high school equivalency diploma and eventually apply to America’s top schools. Upon entering Columbia University, I was shocked to learn that many of my professors weren’t aware that the highest court in the country had set a precedent in favor of extremist religion over my basic rights. Over and over, I’ve seen how the system regularly protects religious sects as they harm children –– from a failure to educate them to a failure to physically protect them.

For example, in New York City, Mayor de Blasio has failed forcefully to stand up to ultra-Orthodox yeshivas to ensure that these schools provide Hasidic children with a state-mandated secular education. Most recently, 30 members of the New York City Council signed a letter spearheaded by Council Members Chaim Deutsch and Kalman Yeger in opposition to regulations proposed by the New York State Education Department to provide the bare minimum general education to which they are entitled under state law.

And last month, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals denied a motion by congressional leaders to defend the constitutionality of a ban on female genital mutilation after a doctor from a Muslim community was charged with cutting the clitoral hoods of nine 7-year-old girls who cried and bled as a woman restrained them.

Whether fundamentalist Islam, ultra-Orthodox Jewish, Amish, or any other religion, all insular religious communities use a range of tactics to exert power and control over their members, starting at birth. Many of those tactics are steeped in utter fictions that serve to keep children from fulfilling their potential.


Yes, religious leaders can say what they want. But society must help minimize the harm. While [Robert] Jeffress has the right to make outlandish claims about [global climate change] rainbows, children should have the right to a federally-mandated adequate education that would give them the tools to assess the veracity of those claims.

Torah Bontrager, New York Daily News, The Limits of Religious Freedom: America Must Come to Grips with When Faith Groups Limit Personal Liberty, October 22, 2019

Books by Torah Bontrager

An Amish Girl in Manhattan


  1. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    So I scrolled down to the top of the post. Lovely woman, dress to die for (even though I don’t have the, er, appropriate front bumpers to carry it off myself).

    Then I read the post.

    It irritates the heck out of me that this crap is happening, and yet I’m not at all surprised. People like living in bubbles. People with strong belief systems try to keep their children in those bubbles, and the more anti-modern-reality the belief system, the harder they try. I hate the idea of depriving children of a modern education almost as much as the idea of keeping them in detention facilities because their parents don’t have the right documentation to enter the US. [Excuse me while I rage at the computer for a few minutes on that issue. It doesn’t seem to mind.]

    I think of myself as a scientist, though my original training is in computer engineering and my training in geology never got put to use because of disability. But I *like* to think that I hold most of my ideas provisionally, and I will change then based on new information. However, how do I vet the source of new information? In part, by seeing if it reports what I provisionally deem to be true on other issues. If the same publication say, raves about the accomplishments of 45*, I will be very suspicious of reporting that says the children of people seeking asylum in the US are being kept in comfortable accommodations, and getting excellent medical care. OTOH, I might accept too readily an article which too quickly excoriates 45 for something he actually didn’t get wrong.

    We all live in bubbles of our own making. This itself is as scary as what the speaker in the article was pointing out.

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    When one hears of children who are denied basic education or are taught incorrect or outlandish ideas, or those who suffer physical mutilation as in FGM, it is difficult to disagree with Richard Dawkins’ statement that teaching children religion is a form of child abuse. Where does a free society draw the line to protect the welfare of its children? Some of the readers of Bruce’s blog have escaped the confines of fundamentalist upbringing, and I would wager that each one of us carries the scars. I don’t have the answer to where we draw the line. Teaching children to fear the Rapture or eternity in hell or demons and devils entering portals created by doing yoga poses or watching a movie is psychologically abusive to a child, no doubt.

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    Melissa A Montana

    I agree with Ms. Bontrager. Unfortunately, it won’t end soon. There is no law against being stupid or willfully ignorant. People choose to ignore evidence. And children will be caught in the trap.

  4. Avatar

    Excellent points. I’m definitely going to read Torah’s book.

    Speaking of the Amish…my sister (like many christian women) is a fan of romance novels set in the Amish world. (Yes, they exist. And they are extremely popular, even among women who aren’t fundie christian.) Sis is a fan of these novels because they are “sweet and “innocent” (i.e., not full of explicit sex) and “reminders of a simpler and better time.” Something tells me Torah would disagree with that…I know my Significant Other would. He always laughs and rolls his eyes when we’re at sis’ house and he sees the latest Amish romance she’s reading…he grew up in Amish country, and has a far darker (and more realistic) view of that world. His mom was an ER nurse at a hospital where people from the local Amish community would come if they had a complicated childbirth, or an illness or injury they could not treat themselves. On more than one occasion, she remembers Amish parents bringing in children with injuries that could only have come from a severe beating, or some other sort of child abuse. But the parents would always claim that the child “fell off the roof” or “got thrown from a horse” or some other BS excuse. If non-Amish parents had made such lame excuses, CPS and police would be called immediately. But hospital administrators all but forbade nurses and doctors from reporting the Amish to child welfare authorities; the cowards didn’t want to get mixed up in a religious freedom fight, apparently. (No doubt they also didn’t want to lose revenue brought in by the Amish, who always paid cash for their medical care since they don’t participate in health insurance.) It broke S.O.’s mom’s heart that Amish children were being abused, and no one would put a stop to it because “religious freedom.” There is nothing “good” or “innocent” about these insular groups.

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Bruce Gerencser