The liberty principle for this Freedom Friday concerns the need for us to know our religious rights, freedoms that are protected by the laws of the land. Freedom of religion is under attack more than it has been for many years, and many Americans are afraid to even speak of religion in public settings. It is imperative that all Americans know and understand our rights of religion in order for us to be prepared to defend them.
Maurine Proctor recently posted an article titled “You Should Know the Answers to these 35 Questions about Religious Freedom.” She takes her 35 questions from a booklet compiled by the International Center for Law and Religion Studies of the Brigham Young University Law School. She quotes their goal as follows: “Our aim is to help everyone understand the scope of religious freedom guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, and to offer suggestions on how to peacefully reconcile the rights of all.”
In order to understand the seriousness of this battle, we must understand that there are people who are actively working to eliminate many, if not all, of our religious rights. There is little doubt that they want to reduce our rights to worship as far as possible.
For a foundation for this topic, we will first look at the wording of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”
According to the International Center, there are two clauses in the First Amendment, and they describe two ways in which the Constitution protects freedom of religion. The first clause is known as the “Establishment Clause.” This clause says that the government cannot adopt an official religion. The second clause is known as the “Free Exercise Clause.” This clause says that the government cannot interfere with personal religious practices.
The First Amendment applies to all levels of government: federal, state, and local. The government must provide at least as much protection for religious liberty as the Constitution requires, but they can choose to provide more. In fact, state constitutions and laws often provide greater protection for religious freedom than does the U.S. Constitution.
The First Amendment makes it clear that no government or government agency shall establish a religion or interfere with the practice of religion. Yet, there is pressure from various groups to narrow or restrict our freedom to worship to private worship within our own homes.
The International Center defines religious freedom as follows:
Religious freedom means more than just freedom to believe what you want. It is also freedom to talk about and act on your beliefs without coercion or interference, subject to certain narrow limitations. …
The Constitution protects not only people’s right to believe as they choose, but also to worship, to share their beliefs, and to act according to their beliefs. All these rights apply to both individuals and groups.
There is much talk about the “separation of church and state,” and many people believe that the Constitution says that there should be no religious influence in government business. The Center says the following about this phrase.
“Separation of church and state” does not appear in the Constitution, nor is it a legal term. Thomas Jefferson coined the phrase to describe religious freedom as including a healthy independence between government and religious organizations to protect the interests of both. However, the phrase is sometimes used to claim, incorrectly, that the Constitution requires government to be religion-free.
In reality, government may actively cooperate with religious organizations in common causes, such as public health or social welfare. The government also has a duty to accommodate religion when necessary to guarantee the right to free exercise of religion. For example, police must protect religious communities or speakers from harassment or persecution, religious organizations must be allowed to use public facilities and government employees must generally be allowed to wear religiously required clothing to work.
One may ask why it is important to protect religious freedom. The freedom to practice one’s religion and to live according to one’s beliefs has been under attack for several years. Bakers, florists, photographers, and others have been attacked and forced to defend their religious beliefs, pay lots of money, or go out of business. The U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld a baker’s right to refuse to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding ceremony. The Center gives the following explanation for why it is important to protect religious freedom.
Religious freedom is an essential protection allowing people with strong differences of opinion and belief to live together in peace. The people who wrote the Constitution knew that violent conflicts about religion had plagued Europe for hundreds of years, as rulers tried to control the religion of their subjects. Some of the early colonies also tried to regulate religion and experienced similar problems. The Founders sought to avoid these conflicts in the new nation by forbidding official religions and by protecting all religions from government interference.
The Founders also believed that government interference in religion was an assault on human rights. The Constitution protects people from government attempts to deny people’s basic human rights, including the right to have and exercise one’s own religious beliefs.
Freedom of religion extends many rights to Americans as well as helps us to get along with one another. However, there are limits on the free exercise of religion. The Center explains these limits in this way.
As with any right, religious freedom is not absolute. While the government may never tell people or communities what to believe, in a few circumstances it may restrict the way they exercise those beliefs, such as to protect public safety or the fundamental rights of others. To take an obvious example, the government could forbid human sacrifice even if a religion’s teaching approved of or required it.
The Supreme Court has developed a test for when the government is allowed to restrict religious practices under the Constitution.
I have written about only a few of the questions that are asked and answered by the International Center for Law and Religion Studies of the Brigham Young University Law School. I will write about some of the others in future weeks. Meanwhile, we must remember the importance of knowing and understanding our rights of religious freedom in order to be able to defend them.