Backgrounder: Religious Liberty
by Mark Franke
Some folks in the federal courts and governmental agencies decided to read the actual language of the First Amendment, that part which says the practice of religion cannot be prohibited. Instead of being cat’s paws for the anti-religion crowd, they came down on the side of the free exercise of religion as the amendment specifies quite literally.
- The Veterans Administration (VA), in a moment of temporary insanity, seemed bent on removing all religious symbols from its hospitals. No Christmas carols, no Christmas trees and certainly no Bibles in hospital chapels, decreed these Scrooges. No Bibles in the chapels? And they were serious. But VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, with support of President Donald Trump, issued a directive restoring freedom of religion. The freedom that combat veterans fought for can once again be observed at the medical facilities built to serve them.
- The U. S. Supreme Court ruled overwhelmingly that the Bladensburg Cross can stand in spite of its purported offensiveness to a few. The cross stands at a military cemetery in Maryland and has become a community as much as a religious symbol. The Supreme Court recognized this dual purpose, effectively secularizing to a degree the religious nature of the cross. I’m not sure how I feel about that part of the ruling but at least the cross still stands to recognize that the servicemen buried there died for religious freedom as well as all the others.
- A federal appeals court ruled that a Christian filmmaking couple in Minnesota has the right to ask for court protection of their religious liberty against a state law that would force them to produce films in violation of their religious beliefs. Incredibly, the state argued that filmmaking was not speech and therefore under the jurisdiction of its draconian law that subjects religious entities to state oversight for their speech and actions. Based on the decibel level of the howling, state officials are not happy with this decision limiting their freedom to restrict that of others.
- The Arizona Supreme Court instructed the city of Phoenix in a preemptive case that it cannot use an anti-discrimination ordinance to coerce an art studio into creating a custom wedding invitation in violation of its owners’ religious beliefs. The court’s opinion stated that “an individual has autonomy over his or her speech and thus may not be forced to speak a message he or she does not wish to say.” This case revolved not on refusing to serve specific customers but on what the artists would be required to design.
- The recurring nightmare of the Colorado wedding cake baker may finally be over. After losing in the U. S. Supreme Court, Colorado officials charged him a second time but dropped the case with pre-trial discovery found “anti-religious hostility” on the state’s part. However, the courtroom door was left open to a private plaintiff for a civil suit which was filed in June. Even though this is a private action, it is hard to conjure a set of legal principles different from those already adjudicated.
There are more but these five indicate a welcome trend to affirm that the First Amendment still has writ in our nation.
The opponents of religious liberty argue that any display of religious symbols on public and quasi-public land, and here they mean primarily Christian symbols such as the cross, constitutes an establishment of religion which is proscribed by the First Amendment. They frequently cite the “separation of church and state” principle, which language is not to be found in the text of the amendment but rather in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson whose anti-Christianity pedigree is well documented.
While atheists and other non-religious people have the same rights under the First Amendment as the devout, their rights do not trump ours. My religious liberty as a Christian is not abridged when I drive past a mosque or some secularized humanistic sign. I can just keep driving by. My freedom of religion is secured by the free practice of other religions and non-religious belief systems in the public square.
Note, too, that there is no language in the First Amendment protecting us from exposure to all religion, only from an established religion enforced by the state. As politically incorrect as this has become, the inconvenient fact of our nation’s founding rests largely on groups looking for religious freedom. School children used to be taught the real reason the pilgrims and other groups came here. =Not any more, alas.
The defense of liberty requires constant vigilance. The power of the state advances whenever and wherever it can unless it is constrained. In a republic like ours, it is incumbent on the citizenry to erect these constraints sometimes at significant personal cost. Fortunately there are those like the Minnesota filmmakers and the Colorado baker willing to pay that cost.
“Freedom Is Not Free” preaches the popular bumper sticker. That is proving to be more true than its clever author could have anticipated.
Mark Franke, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review, is formerly an associate vice chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.