Religious Freedom

Untouched by Morning
And untouched by Noon —
Sleep the meek members of the Resurrection —
Rafter of satin,
And Roof of stone.
[. . .]

There seems to be, these days, a major thesis that drives the attitudes of a significantly sized segment of the American populace. Those who practice it, including most of the GOP Presidential, Senatorial, and Congressional candidates, seem convinced that the ‘proper’ interpretation of the Constitution is that it defines the  United States as a “Christian Nation,”and that there is no “separation of church and state” expressed or implied — a concept which they presume defines their consequential “Religious Freedom” as a special level of privilege.

A quick search suggests that “Religious Freedom,” aka “Freedom-of-Religion,” has basically two definitions which (courtesy of read as follows (highlights mine):

(1) The right of people to hold any religious beliefs, or none, and to carry out any practices in accordance with those beliefs or with that absence of belief, so long as these practices do not interfere with other people’s legal or civil rights, or any reasonable laws, without fear of harm or prosecution.

(2)  The right, guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, to choose religious practices or to abstain from any without government intervention.

As the second definition notes, it’s the First Amendment which typically serves as the basis for the concept of “religious freedom.” The amendment was written by James Madison, and its final revision — the first sixteen words in the Bill of Rights — reads as follows:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .

Note that it’s the last five words, not the first eleven, that are presumed, by some, to imply that ‘religious freedom’ — the right to believe (and act) as one’s belief might demand — allows for no restriction on said belief and does not (cannot) disallow any religious practices which might  interfere with other people’s legal or civil rights.

So today, talk of the “right” to discriminate against anyone who happens to support things that someone’s religion (Christian, of course) might find offensive — abortion, contraception, LGBT rights, gay marriage, the list is lengthy — is presumed guaranteed by those five words in the (so-called) “Establishment Clause” of the First Amendment. One can only wonder if that sort of boundless “religious liberty” was what Madison had in mind when he drafted the amendment.

It’s fair to note that the wording of the First Amendment as it stands today has little or no resemblance to the wording of Madison’s original draft, which read as follows (highlights mine):

The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext infringed.

The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments; and the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable.

The people shall not be restrained from peaceably assembling and consulting for their common good, nor from applying to the legislature by petitions, or remonstrances for redress of their grievances.

Note the highlights; are those two phrases not the essence of today’s conflict in the words “Religious Freedom” plainly spelled out? On the one hand, no one’s rights can ever be abridged by religious belief, but on the other hand, neither can the full and equal rights of conscience be infringed on any pretext. Which prevails? Civil rights, or the rights of conscience? Does it mean that Madison meant that the free exercise of religion trumped everything else? Or, in today’s jargon, since gay marriage violates certain religious beliefs or conscience, that therefore allowing same sex marriage violates the first amendment even though it’s been deemed, by the Supreme Court, to be a civil right? And how about abortion — deemed a constitutional right in the Roe v. Wade decision — is it actually unconstitutional because it violates a religious conscience somewhere?

I happen to believe that a thoughtful (i.e. Liberal) mind would never agree that “free exercise” of religion means that all matters of conscience or belief stand taller than any so-called Civil Right. But there are a great many who believe the opposite, that religious freedom trumps everything else, every other “right” expressed or implied. One can only wonder what the future holds. As Liberty Counsel’s Mat Staver noted in re his objections to gay marriage,

“Pendulums swing and I believe that if you remain faithful, you will ultimately be encouraged by being on the right side of history. People say, ‘Well, you’re on the wrong side of history.’ I would rather be on the side of God’s history and the natural created order, millennia of human history than some newfangled idea. This is an assault on marriage and family, our freedom and an assault on God himself.”

An assault on Religious Freedom is apparently viewed, by the faithful, as anything that impinges in any way upon, in Madison’s words, the full and equal rights of conscience.

If that be the case, we have a hell of a long way to go.

[. . .]
Light laughs the breeze
In her Castle above them —
Babbles the Bee in a stolid Ear,
Pipe the Sweet Birds in ignorant cadence —
Ah, what sagacity perished here!
(Emily Dickinson)


About frugalchariot

How Frugal is the Chariot That bears the Human soul. (Emily Dickinson)
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