Religious Freedom is at the Heart of the American Way

The First Amendment to the Constitution reads:

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.

Taken together, the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause provide powerful protection against government interference with religious freedom. Thomas Jefferson described the First Amendment as protecting freedom of conscience by “building a wall of separation between Church & State.” The Constitution also bans the government from imposing any religious requirement for holding public office.

The application of constitutional principles, including non-establishment and free exercise of religion, can come into tension with each other when they are applied in real-world situations. That requires courts to decide where to draw lines in challenging cases, and has led to a complicated and sometimes changing set of guidelines from federal courts.

Supreme Court rulings in the 1960s prohibited public schools from requiring students to read the Bible or start the day with a government-approved prayer. While these rulings protected everyone, including religious minorities, from coercion, Religious Right leaders view them as an attack on religious freedom. The Religious Right says these rulings banned God from public schools, but the truth is that students have broad freedom to pray at lunch or with other students before school, to share their faith with other students, and to form Bible clubs at high schools that allow other non-curricular clubs.

Some religious conservatives insist, wrongly, that equality for LGBT Americans is fundamentally incompatible with religious liberty. They have pushed for laws and court rulings that will allow for-profit corporations as well as religiously affiliated nonprofits to exempt themselves from laws that offend their owners’ or leaders’ religious beliefs, even when it comes at the expense of others.

Religious Right leaders, who helped Trump win a huge majority of white evangelical voters, have a list of demands for the new Congress and administration, including:

  • Supreme Court justices who will overturn marriage equality
  • Passage of the so-called First Amendment Defense Act, which would give broad leeway for anti-LGBT discrimination in the name of religious liberty
  • Repeal of the “Johnson Amendment,” which prevents churches, like other tax-exempt nonprofits, from using charitable dollars for electoral politics

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