Religion is mentioned twice in the U.S. Constitution. The final provision of Article VI states, “…no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” The First Amendment, which lists basic rights of the people, begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; …” And the Fourteenth Amendment, enacted in 1868 after the end of the Civil War, extended the protections granted under the Constitution to the states. “… [N]or shall any state … deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
Like every other right guaranteed in the Constitution, freedom of religion is not absolute. Over the years courts have been called on to mediate between conflicting claims, and Congress and state legislators have seen the need to define and amplify or restrict the way freedom of religion is applied in specific instances. In some cases accommodation is made in favor of religion, such as the granting of conscientious objector status to those who do not believe in participating in armed conflict and the exemption of the Amish from the requirement that young people receive formal education to age 16. In other cases such accommodations have been denied. Some examples of the latter are the requirement imposed on the Mormons of Utah to abandon the practice of polygamy before Utah was granted statehood, and the jailing of Schwartzentruber Amish elders for failure to comply with septic system ordinances.
From the very beginning of our country’s history there has been tension between different religious groups over just what rights are granted by our freedom of religion. As the country has become more religiously diverse, these tensions have become more prominent in public discourse. With the help of such organizations as the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, minority groups, both religious and non-religious, have asserted their right to equal treatment under the law. In response some groups within the Christian majority have mounted attempts to re-establish majority privilege.
One of the arguments frequently used to support Christian privilege under the law is that the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation. As I demonstrated in the first paragraph of this column, there is nothing in the Constitution to support such a claim. Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists is often cited as refutation of the idea, but an even clearer statement can be found in the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, signed at Tripoli November 4, 1796. Negotiated under President George Washington, signed by President John Adams soon after his inauguration, and ratified by the United States Senate on June 10, 1797, this treaty clearly represents the thinking of a number of our founders. Article 11 states: “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,-as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen,-and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.” (The words “Musselmen” and “Mehomitan” refer to what are today termed Muslims and Islam.)
Numerous other examples can be found in the writings and speeches of the founders, many of whom were quite suspicious of granting any opening for entanglement of religion with government. James Madison, in his letter to William Bradford dated April 1, 1774, wrote, “Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise.” And forty years later Thomas Jefferson wrote to Horatio Spofford, “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.”
All of this would be merely of historical interest were it not for the current public figures who use a misreading of the Constitution and the records left by our founders to argue that the First Amendment does not apply equally to followers of any religion or none. While signing a bill in 2013, Texas Governor and 2012 Presidential hopeful Rick Perry stated, “I'm proud we are standing up for religious freedom in our state. Freedom of religion doesn't mean freedom from religion." (Actually, Governor Perry, it means exactly that.) The U.S. Congressional Representative from the 10th District of Georgia, Jody Hice, has written that Islam “does not deserve First Amendment protection” and maintains that it should not be protected under U.S. law. And Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore has argued that the term “religion” in the First Amendment only applies to those who “believe in the God of Holy Scriptures”, i.e., Christians, and perhaps Jews.
Such statements from elected officials are deeply troubling. During the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s Fannie Lou Hamer’s cry that “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free” became an oft-repeated watchword. It can be applied to the current conversation about freedom of religion as well. Basic rights are written into our constitution precisely because they are intended to protect the minority against the tyranny of the majority. Even if 999 residents out of a thousand agree on worship in a particular way, no government official or entity may grant preference or privilege to that manner of worship. Nor may the one dissenting citizen be compelled to participate in the religious practices of the majority in order to have a place in public life.
One of our former choir members, when asked to offer prayer at the end of rehearsal, would frequently thank God that we live in a country where we have the freedom to worship unmolested. If we cherish that freedom and want to keep it, then it is our duty and obligation to assure that it is extended to all, both to those who worship different gods in different ways, and to those who choose to refrain from any form of worship. Anything less threatens the rights and freedoms which we all enjoy.