OPINION: Religious freedom in America is experiencing new assaults

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Although it is written into the U.S. Constitution in the First Amendment, marginalized people and individuals constantly battle to have their religious freedom respected. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and the other so-called Founding Fathers debated and fought to have the idea included in the Constitution. 

One hundred and fifty years later, President Franklin Roosevelt declared freedom of religion to be one of the four freedoms that Americans should enjoy. The Supreme Court has also rendered decisions on the matter many times, based upon citizens’ preferences, making the matter a perennial issue. 

The wording of the Amendment has caused much of the discussion. It reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” To some it appears the Amendment is saying two contradictory things.

Legal scholars and judges have explained that with one sentence the Constitution’s writers set up two principles. In simple lay language, the principle embedded in the commonly called establishment clause forbids governmental institutions and agencies at all levels, along with their employees, from leading or endorsing public religious activities in their spaces. It is under this principle that public prayer in public schools was outlawed. 

On the other hand, the principle in the free exercise clause, in simple lay terms, enables groups and individuals to engage in private religious activities in their own spaces, saying that government officials cannot outlaw private religious activities. 

All of this can be understood as protecting the conscience of each person. Governments cannot force anyone to engage in religious conduct that opposes his conscience nor can it prevent him from following his conscience by privately engaging in religious activities. 

Religion can be thought of as including three components: 1) philosophy/theology; 2) morality/conduct; and 3) worship/praise/ceremony. 

In the philosophy and theology component, people generally hold these beliefs in private. Often people may not even believe in every aspect that their religious group professes. It is more a matter of their intellectual adoption rather than being a matter of physical conduct subject to religious freedom scrutiny. 

The morality/conduct component comes into play usually as its relates to social interactions or behavior, such as property ownership and protection, bodily autonomy and protection, child and elderly care, and family relations. They are the things that become policy through the political process. 

Finally, it is in the worship/praise/ceremony component that religious freedom issues come into play. 

 Although we have seen religious freedom issues before, America today is seriously divided by these issues. Tribalism, as embodied in white Christian nationalists, escalates demands for the re-drawing of the lines of religious freedom. To put it another way, since the beginning of this century, many members of this tribe have become more vocal in declaring that America was born as a Christian nation and that their European American culture should be protected, even by re-defining what is meant by religious freedom.

Several recent Supreme Court decisions have held, under the guise of religious freedom, that businesses can refuse service to certain groups of people. This harkens back to an earlier day when a different group of people could be legally discriminated against. 

White Christian nationalists are backing efforts to permit the use of the Christian bible in public schools, to establish and enforce Christian policies on reproductive medicine, to expand the celebration of Christian holidays, and to discriminate against individuals and groups based upon their religious beliefs or lack thereof.

 As these efforts unfold, people who believe in and appreciate the protections of religious freedom must stand-up and protect everybody’s religious freedom. If nothing else, one should consider their own feelings if the shoe was on the other foot. 

What would be one’s attitude if he or his children were forced to engage in the rituals and prayers of another religion? What if his group was branded as a “cursed” group? What if he was denied certain jobs or benefits because of his religion? 

One can easily get the point of how things could be if the government was free to side with and enforce laws favoring one religion over another, or to punish those adhering to no particular religion. This may be where we are headed if we are not careful as to who gets elected and who is selected to interpret what is meant by the term religious freedom. 

 America is a multi-cultural society, despite the fact that certain Europeans planted their national flags here centuries ago, seized the land from the indigenous people, forced African people to develop it, and exploited people from Asia. Now as we share this country, everybody’s conscience and culture must be respected, avoiding religious bullying and oppression, and supporting a set of common moral standards that reflects the best for all humans. After all, that is the goal of the religious freedom provision of the Constitution as ratified in 1791. 

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OPINION: Religious freedom in America is experiencing new assaults

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
May 6, 2024