Religious Freedom and Separation: All Must be Free to Worship, but Church and State should Remain Separate.

Religious Freedom and Separation: All Must be Free to Worship, but Church and State should Remain Separate.

Principles for Federal Government

By our count, there are approximately 35 different rights listed in our country’s Bill of Rights. Parsing through all of the conjunctions like “and,” “or,” and “nor,” along with all of the commas and semicolons, one can find nearly three dozen specific rights across a spectrum from the right to a jury trial, to the right to free speech, to the right to be avoid cruel and unusual punishment. Even at that, the ninth of the ten amendments included in the Bill of Rights makes clear that enumeration of all these separate rights is not meant to take away other rights “We the People” already possessed. That may have been a reference to, among others, the “inalienable rights” mentioned in the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence, namely, “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” 

Our founders wanted to state unequivocally the high importance of rights. Human rights. Natural rights. Individual rights. And the very first of all the many rights delineated in the vaunted Bill of Rights? Here it is:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” 

Yes, the so-called “establishment clause” and “free exercise clause” combine to express the primary and arguably preeminent specific right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. 

Principle Based Politics does not need to look any further than the first clause of the Bill of Rights to find a key principle for our federal government—the principle of religious freedom. 

The Free Exercise of Religion

Perhaps influenced by story from the Bible itself about the “last being first and the first being last,” we will begin with the second aspect of the above-quoted language from the First Amendment, the free exercise clause. Why did the Bill of Rights prohibit Congress from prohibiting free exercise of religion? What exactly did the founders believe they were disallowing Congress from disallowing? Moreover, have you ever really thought about what it means to “exercise” your religion, let alone to freely exercise it?

Religious freedom, like many rights, apparently was in short supply under the old royal rule of Great Britain. The problem was not that religion was prohibited in England in those days, but the Church of England was the state-sponsored, exclusive church, and it was illegal not to attend the services of the official state church. The soon-to-be Pilgrims had different religious beliefs and practices, and they were being persecuted by the government/Church for those beliefs. For example, before they left, their leaders were being executed. Religious freedom clearly was one of the Pilgrims’ chief motivators in boarding the Mayflower and crossing the Atlantic. 

The religious freedom of the colonists in America presumably continued to be less than complete with the King and the Church of England continuing to inflict “injuries and usurpations” on the Pilgrims and others who had joined them in the new land. As a result, invoking the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” and citing “the Creator” in asserting their inalienable rights, appealing to the “Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions,” and “with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence,” the founders declared their independence.

The previous two paragraphs may explain why the right to free exercise of religion was guaranteed quickly after the Constitution was in place. But, while we know intuitively how one would go about exercising one’s body, or even to exercise one’s right to vote, what it means to freely exercise one’s religion is less clear, and this subject is quite controversial today. 

Let us start with the basics, then. Free exercise of religion certainly means the government cannot pass a law prohibiting church attendance, praying, singing religious songs during worship, preaching, listening to sermons, or attending religious study groups. On the other side of the coin,* truly free exercise of religion also means Congress cannot pass a law forcing attendance at any particular church, reciting any particular prayers, singing any particular religious songs, preaching or listening to any particular doctrine, or attending any particular religious studies. We will discuss this latter point further in the context of the establishment clause.

*Speaking of coins, “IN GOD WE TRUST” has appeared on U.S. coinage since 1864. It also became the official slogan of the United States in 1956.

It is beyond these basic practices, however, that modern-day religious freedom is tested. Much attention has been paid this century to whether religion is being “exercised” when a business like a bakery or florist refuses to serve a customer on religious grounds. Another controversial context is in employment, when an employee wants to observe a religious practice (such as a holiday or grooming) that an employer does not allow. Yet another is whether a religious organization or even a private small business can exercise religious beliefs by refusing to provide health insurance coverage for certain procedures. And, finally, the question arises as to when a law can be passed limiting the actions by a parent—who cites religious grounds—in the upbringing of the parent’s own child.

Disputes regarding the free exercise of religion are likely to get more complex as our society evolves. Congress and other law-makers, courts, and executive branches, however, must never forget the fundamental importance of religious freedom in our country.

No Law Respecting an Establishment of Religion

The Constitution itself, excluding the Bill of Rights, mentioned religion only in Article VI’s mandate that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” That this is the only reference to religion in the original body of the Constitution was a sign that our founders viewed separation of church and state as equally vital to religious freedom. 

In our view, the First Amendment drove home this point with its opening words barring any “law respecting an establishment of religion.” Principle Based Politics reads this, in essence, as keeping federal government out of the religion business. While Congress clearly cannot “establish” a state-sponsored religion, the government also cannot pass laws “respecting” (meaning, regarding or relating to or regulating) a religion, either. That is very broad. This seems like it only could have been intended to leave the houses of worship and their adherents completely alone, which is the very definition of freedom and liberty. 

As we will discuss in our next post, religions should welcome the establishment clause and the separation of church and state generally, just as they do the free exercise of religion. Religion is not totally free if laws can be passed affecting it. The authors of the Bill of Rights made sure that cannot happen.

Written by Quentin R. Wittrock, founder of Principle Based Politics. 

Look for his posts twice each week, as this blog will explore and promote the idea of principle in politics, both as to individual elected leaders and our federal government as an institution.

This month, we are expounding on the following government principles:

  • Equality: Governments must treat all people equally and fairly.
  • Freedom and free enterprise: Liberty and freedom of the people and free markets should be purposes of government.
  • Transparency: Telling the people the truth, openly, is the best way to govern.
  • Law and Justice: Upholding the law and Constitution, justly, is an essential governmental function.
  • Protecting the vulnerable: A necessary role of the government is to protect those in true need.
  • Religious freedom and separation: All must be free to worship, but church and state should remain separate.
  • Limited government: The federal government should do only what others cannot.
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