Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
There it is – the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Contained in that text is the cherished principle of religious freedom: the right to religious belief or no religious belief, and protection from governmental preference of one religion over another, or over non-religion.
To know the history of this country is to know that the founders were clearly concerned about the role of religion in our government. I can’t help but wonder just how many of our elected officials know that President Thomas Jefferson refused to proclaim holidays based on religion, because he believed this would violate religious freedom? It is true that the Founding Fathers were religious, but it is also true that they were very intentional in establishing a government that was secular.
How many of us are aware of the fact that John Quincy Adams was sworn in as President of the United States in 1825, using a book of law and not the bible because he wanted to display a separation of church and state? Yes, the founders of this nation believed that establishment of a secular government is the best way to both support religion and protect religious freedom.
As Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch is in the throes of hearing confirmations, my recurring nightmare of the 2014 SCOTUS decision in favor of Hobby Lobby haunts me once again. One year earlier in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, even while the government argued that for-profit corporations should not have the protections of non-profit religious organizations, Gorsuch agreed with the for-profit secular corporation that claimed it had religious freedom and should not be required to provide contraceptive coverage as part of its employer-sponsored health insurance plans. We cannot allow claims of religious freedom to be used as a tool of discrimination and inequality. It was Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who said of the church, “It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool.”
While today we don’t face the threat of an established church, as someone who holds a minority religious identity in the United States (ordained in the Unitarian Universalist tradition, and as an atheist), I am keenly aware that what we do face is an ongoing struggle with those who treat freedom of religion as an opportunity to impose their religious beliefs on others. We must never forget that religious freedom was used to justify slavery, support segregation and Jim Crow laws, and condone racial and gender discrimination. In very recent history, we’ve seen religious freedom being used as a tool against employees who choose in vitro fertilization, and against LGBT individuals.
Too many political leaders seem to ignore the fact that religious freedom promises protection from governmental preference of religion in general, and preference of any particular faith. This is not about partisan politics. This is about humanity. This is about all of humanity, not just those who look a certain way, or speak a certain way, or worship a certain way. The truth is, religious freedom has never been just about Christianity. Many others are also protected by the principle of religious freedom: Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, Humanists, and more.
At this moment in the life of our country, it is imperative that local and national interfaith groups seek to include minority religious voices in their ranks and commit to the critical work of making sure that the government doesn’t play religious favorites and never regulates private life based on religious beliefs. The future of religious freedom for all, and the destiny of our nation, is at stake.
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