Religious freedom is one of the core principles on which the American system of government is based. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
In a 1789 letter to the United Baptists in Virginia, George Washington stated:
If I could have entertained the slightest apprehension that the Constitution framed in the Convention, where I had the honor to preside, might possibly endanger the religious rights of any ecclesiastical Society, certainly I would never have placed my signature to it; and if I could now conceive that the general Government might ever be so administered as to render the liberty of conscience insecure, I beg you will be persuaded that no one would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution.
And yet, there are those who believe that religious freedom in America Is under assault today as never before. Some politicians mock the sincerely held beliefs of religious adherents of different faiths who object to governmental actions based on conscience, while government entities and actors treat religious freedom and expression as obstacles to be overcome, rather than as important values to protect.
For example, a Seattle elementary school insisted that students refer to Easter eggs as “spring spheres.” Other schools have prohibited students from distributing candy and pencils with a religious message to fellow classmates during school holiday and birthday parties, while other students were permitted to distribute goody bags to their classmates.
The government challenged the ability of religious institutions to choose their leaders without interference by giving a cramped reading to the “ministerial exception” to certain employment discrimination laws. This, however, was rebuffed by the Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC (2011).
Through a mandate by the Department of Health and Human Services, the government is seeking to require non-exempt employers to cover sterilization, prescription contraceptives, abortion-inducing drugs, and related patient education and counseling services in their health insurance plans. They are required to do this even if doing so violates fundamental tenets of their beliefs; this mandate is now being challenged in courts of law as described in this Legal Memorandum. Other examples abound.
To hear more about this timely subject, please join us at Heritage on Wednesday, October 3 at noon or tune in online for a lively debate on whether religious institutions and individuals are being treated like second-class citizens, which is part of our Preserve the Constitution Series. Our panelists will be Jay Sekulow from the American Center for Law and Justice, Marci Hamilton from Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Richard Land of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and William Galston from The Brookings Institution.