There is a vast difference between state-sponsored, state-enforced religion and individual devotion to spiritual matters. Thomas Jefferson recognized this great divide in his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1779 (“Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom,” 1779). There he states that God “created the mind free” and that attempting to influence the mind by punishments, burdens, or other means is “sinful and tyrannical.” In other words, government cannot force religious beliefs on anyone because true spirituality is a product of the mind and heart that comes through personal experiences with God. Since this freedom of conscience comes from God, government does not and should not have any authority or control over it. This essay will define freedom of religion, discuss how ordinary citizens can protect this freedom, and explain why the religion clauses in the First Amendment are challenged so often in the United States Supreme Court.
There is more to freedom of religion than most people realize at first glance because there are several layers to its meaning. One level is freedom of conscience or the freedom to choose one’s own moral convictions. A second layer would be the freedom to act on one’s chosen beliefs, and a third level would involve believing and worshipping as one chooses. A fourth layer would be freedom to speak freely of one’s religion and religious ideas in public places, and a fifth level would be the right to freely advocate one’s moral ideas for society as a whole. Thus, freedom of religion can be defined as the right to think, believe, express, and act according to one’s moral conscience. This is an essential freedom that must stay secured because it is a protection for all other rights.
Protecting religious freedom is a vital responsibility that is placed on the shoulders of every American. In order for this freedom to survive, citizens must understand what it is and what it is not. D. Todd Christofferson says that protecting this freedom “can be daunting,” but it “does not require a legal or political background.” He says that ordinary citizens can make a difference by doing small and simple things in their individual spheres of influence, and these seemingly insignificant actions can have great effects over a period of time. Christofferson offers ten suggestions for actions that everyday Americans can take to protect religious freedom, but only his first three ideas are included in this essay.
Christofferson’s suggested first step for every citizen is to know one’s rights as outlined in the First Amendment. This step includes the need to study the issues in order to know what is being said about religious freedom by living Apostles and other responsible sources. This rung also includes the suggestion to ask God for help in discerning the truth. His second step is to seek understanding by recognizing relevant points made by others and by speaking or writing calmly and clearly with civility, courage, and kindness. “Explain why the freedoms you defend are so important to you, your loved ones, and the Church – make it personal.” His third step is to become involved in the political process. Citizens should vote in every election whether it is local, state, or national. To do this responsibly, one should study the candidates and what they believe about “the proper role of religion in society and the need to protect it for everyone.” These ideas are just a few of the numerous actions that citizens can take to protect the freedom of religion for everyone. By understanding and protecting freedom of religion on the ground level, Americans may be able to defuse problems before they develop into greater complications.
The religious clauses in the First Amendment are often challenged in the United States Supreme Court because people are seeking to protect the inner core of who they are. Religion and spirituality come from the center of one’s being and form the essence of that particular person. According to Kenneth W. Starr, the Supreme Court has used the due process clause of Amendment 14 to apply the religion clauses of the First Amendment since 1940. However, these clauses did not “burst onto the national consciousness with particular fury” until the 1960s cases about prayer in schools. Starr explains that the opinions of those cases show that the Court had two related concerns. One concern was about school children being forced into religious activities against their consciences or the teachings of their parents, and the other concern was about the separation of church and state. The Court desired to protect the children, while at the same time saying that school authorities should not be in the business of teaching prayer or mandating religious activities.
According to Starr, it is the second concern – keeping state out of religion – that “has been the focal point of the most controversial and bitter legal battles of the last two decades.” This concern is still an issue because individuals want to include prayer at sporting events and graduations but are opposed by school districts. Starr says that the principle of separating church and state in an effort to protect religious liberty is now being used to treat religious individuals and groups unfairly. This view is supported by Dallin H. Oaks who says that “the supportive relationship between church and state” is gradually becoming a “hostile one. Now many see religion as suspect, while many others see government as repressive toward religion.” It is the repression of religion by government that concerns leaders and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as well as millions of other Americans. An example of this unfairness and repression can be seen in the case of the baker in Colorado who won his case at the Supreme Court but is being charged again by the State. Cases continue to go to the United States Supreme Court because people feel that government is forcing them to conform in ways that go against their religious and spiritual selves.
This essay provides a definition for religious freedom, shares several ways that ordinary Americans can protect it, and explains why the religion clauses in the First Amendment are challenged so often in the Supreme Court. Freedom of conscience is the “first freedom” because it is placed first in the Bill of Rights. It was placed there because it is superior to all other rights and forms a strong foundation for all other freedoms. Americans have the right to protect their freedom of conscience because it comes from God and not from the government. It is this right that the Founders sought to protect by listing freedom of religion first in the Bill of Rights.