Religious Freedom in 10 Minutes

This week I had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion on religious freedom and the Supreme Court at the Religion Newswriters Association Conference in Austin, TX. Our diverse panel included an atheist, the head of a local C4 founded by Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood, and a Christian attorney from the Liberty Institute. Below is text somewhat closely resembling my opening remarks:

What is religious freedom and why does it matter?

The pursuit of answers to ultimate questions is a universal human experience. Who am I? Why am I here? How should I live my life?

Religion provides metaphysical answer to these questions, answers that often prescribe behaviors, lived individually and in community with like-minded believers. And despite challenges from alternative, non-religious sources of authority (i.e. Enlightenment, Marxism, postmodernism) and the occasional claim of its demise, God is not dead. Religion persists. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest its influence is as powerful as at any point in human history.

Unfortunately, despite the ubiquity of religious experience, religious freedom is all too uncommon. Our own American history is the bittersweet story of a land founded in the pursuit of religious freedom that quickly organized itself according to strict sectarian divisions, sometimes persecuting dissidents.

Religious freedom is the right to ask questions of ultimate significance, and live in light of the answers. It consists of an unconstrained mind and unconstrained body: the freedom of orthodoxy, belief consistent with doctrine, and of orthopraxy, behavior that conforms with ones beliefs.

Conforming mind and body to ones most deeply held religious beliefs is a basic human right, worthy of utmost protection.

For this reason, religious freedom is America’s “first freedom”. Enshrined in the free exercise and establishment clauses that make up the first part of the First Amendment, freedom for religion is the foundation of all that comes after. After all, if the State can tell you what to believe, or deny your ability to live in accordance with your beliefs, what can’t it do? What’s to stop it from telling you what to read? Or what to write?

Over two hundred years of American jurisprudence over free exercise and establishment has proven that the complex dynamics contained within the first amendment are a permanent facet of American life. As nominal Christianity is replaced as America’s de facto religion, the conflicts between the demands of conscience and culture are sure to rise. Someone once said if India is the worlds most religious nation, and Sweden its least, America is a nation of Indians ruled by Swedes. The mainstreaming of alternative notions of human sexuality, through public education, arts, the law, media and other elite sectors, is the front line of this conflict. And the courts are a battlefield.

This term, the Supreme Court is likely to hear cases dealing with each of the Manhattan Declarations three foundational principles, two of which involve conflicts over sexual ethics:

- Arts and crafts retailer Hobby Lobby, founded and operated according to the biblical values of the Green family, has sued the federal government over the HHS mandate requiring employers to provide or subsidize abortions, abortion-inducing drugs and contraception, a violation of their belief that all life is sacred

- Elaine Hueginin, a New Mexico photographer who politely declined to use her creative talent to photograph a same-sex commitment ceremony, was sued and ordered to pay massive penalties for living in accordance with what her religious beliefs say about the meaning and purpose of marriage. One judge on the New Mexico Supreme Court called this “the cost of citizenship”

- Town of Greece v. Galloway asks the Court to consider the Constitutionality of voluntary prayer, available to any member of the community, before a town council meeting; activities that we should welcome in a culture of religious pluralism, with freedom for religion as a vital contribution in the public square

Embracing religious pluralism is messy and complicated. There are no easy solutions, no elegant tests or legal doctrines that will iron out our differences once and for all. We ought to embrace the tension, learn from it, and from one another. We would be wise to remember the timeless words of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., whose “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” reminds us that despite our differences we are “tied in a single garment of destiny. Within this “inescapable network of mutuality” recognizing and honoring our differences is a sure guarantee of peace, while the pursuit of sameness will only ever lead to violence.

Justice Clarence Thomas has said establishment clause jurisprudence is “in shambles.” Anyone who has tried to navigate years of precedent would have to agree. My hope is that the Court would use this term to give clarity, and to begin a new era in which government doesn’t merely tolerate religion, but promotes it, equally and without preference, as part of the competition of ideas fundamental to a free society.


  • CDR

    Excellent. Well said. Hopefully the courts will follow the Constitution and quit following PC ideas.

  • ggacre99

    ‘After all, if the State can tell you what to believe, or deny your
    ability to live in accordance with your beliefs, what can’t it do?
    What’s to stop it from telling you what to read? Or what to write?’ As history so amply demonstrates, that approach is mostly limited to religious organizations/nuts. No matter how you spin it, your freedom to practice your religious beliefs do not trump my freedom from having your beliefs imposed on me.

    • Quacker

      “No matter how you spin it, your freedom to practice your religious beliefs do not trump my freedom from having your beliefs imposed on me.” I agree. So exactly how are we “religious organizations/nuts” imposing our beliefs on you. Surely you aren’t suggesting that by praying in public we are forcing you to pray with us, or even to agree with the text or sentiment expressed in our prayers? I you do feel that you should be free from all exposure to religion, then does that mean we can’t put up an otherwise legal sign, promoting a religious belief, that faces a public street?

      • ggacre99

        You can pray anytime, anywhere. Not being able to disrupt classrooms, or people in public, by making everyone listen to you is, somehow, considered loss of religious freedom. Yet there is nothing in religious rites requiring such practice, it is just one of the many privileges previously granted to religions, and one that some people are simply tired of. No one expects to be free from exposure to religion, any more than freedom from any other advertising. There are, however, hundreds of laws either granting some sort of privilege or providing exemption from laws and regulations based on supposed religious beliefs, many of those beliefs having arisen in the recent past and actually having no basis in religion whatsoever. I’m not opposed to religion, just don’t want to suffer under a theocracy. There are a few examples of those types of countries around the world, but none I want to live in.

      • Oswald Carnes

        A lot of you weirdos are attempting (and, finally, failing) to use the government to enforce your dumbass beliefs about marriage on me and my family. Fortunately, in my state there’s nothing you can do to keep me from marrying the man of my dreams.

        • steveo55

          It is the elitist, non-rational, progressives (dumbasses as yourself) that use the courts, popular media and Hollywood to duplicitly influence the masses (via “cramming”) into entertaining there lowest moral denominator. The common sense believers go back to time and immemorial. Believers don’t want to stop your disordered behavior . They know you can always find a church to validate marrying the man of your dreams. You know and I know ” that’s not the issue” but the masses are easily swayed to thinking sentimentally because we Americans are tolerant. And the (finally, failing) comment : “the fat lady hasn’t sung yet” If you were to take a POLL in the 1840″s in America MOST people would have said the slavery was ok-business as usual. And we know it’s morally ( or better! rationally)wrong. We all know the Supreme Courts make mistakes (historically) such as the 1857 Dred Scott decision. Again, the masses were misinformed.” I am the truth”, says the Lord and not Oswald’s opinion…enjoy your marriage….love steve

  • buckeye68

    The first amendment protects us from having government, as our founders forefathers had experienced, dictate a state religion. The first amendment also instructs that government SHALL NOT prohibit the free exercise of religion. The RFRA, passed under Clinton, reiterated and reinforced that government not place an undue burden on the practice of one’s religious beliefs.

    It is governments role to protect the right of each to follow his conscience as to his beliefs in God. The founders placed the highest importance on the need for a plurality of religions to flourish because they knew a moral people were the surest guardians of the liberty so dearly won for this new country.

    • DavidHart

      You are re-wording the establishment clause to make a false argument. It states nothing about preventing a state religion. Indeed, the free exercise clause is dependent upon the establishment clause.

      Moreover, there is no mention of God in the original Constitution. Indeed, in the original body, there is only one mention of religion – prohibiting a religious test to hold public office.

      I have no idea where you are getting that “plurality of religions” stuff. It sounds like David Barton.

  • DavidHart

    As a matter of public policy, religious freedom is not a license to discriminate or not comply with valid laws.

    In Employment Division v Smith, Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, observed that the Court has never held that an individual’s religious beliefs excuse him from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that government is free to regulate. Allowing exceptions to every state law or regulation affecting religion “would open the prospect of constitutionally required exemptions from civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind.” Scalia cited as examples compulsory military service, payment of taxes, vaccination requirements, and child-neglect laws.

    The RFRA has been held invalid at the state level. Federally, there has been one case (Gozalez v something-or-other). The Court deferred on constitutionality ruling in that specific case that government failed to demonstrate a compelling interest in seizing a ceremonial tea that contained a Schedule I substance.

    According to the IRS, there have been numerous cases of people trying to avoid paying taxes based on freedom of religion. Nobody has ever prevailed.