Religious Liberty, the Founders, and Us

 Rob Schwarzwalder is Senior Vice President at Family Research Council. This article appeared in Christian Headlines on September 22, 2015.

When Blaine Adamson, owner of Hands On Originals printing company in Lexington, Kentucky, declined to print tee shirts for the Lexington Gay Pride Festival, the city’s Gay and Lesbian Services Organization filed a complaint.  That was in March 2012.  Here’s what happened next: “In October 2014, after 24 months of back-and-forth, Lexington’s Human Rights Commission issued its ruling, finding the business guilty of breaking the town’s ‘fairness’ ordinance and ordered re-education known as ‘diversity training’ as punishment.”

Thankfully, the case didn’t end there: “On April 27, 2015, the Fayette Circuit Court reversed the commission’s decision. ‘The government can’t force citizens to surrender free-speech rights or religious freedom in order to run a small business, and this decision affirms that,’ noted Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Legal Counsel Jim Campbell, who argued before the court.”  
Campbell was right.  Religious liberty is more than the right to sanctify in one’s mind the beliefs he holds dear.  It involves the right to live in accordance with these beliefs, not only in the privacy of his home or the confines of his house of worship.
Former Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Michael W. McConnell, now Director of the Stanford Constitutional Law Center at Stanford Law School, captures this understanding well.  As he has written in the Yale Law Journal, “Religious freedom—the right of individuals and groups to form their own religious beliefs and to practice them to the extent consistent with the rights of others and with fundamental requirements of public order and the common good—has long been a bedrock value in the United States and other liberal nations.”
Thomas C. Berg, Professor of Law and Public Policy at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, affirms that this view is grounded in America’s earliest history: “At the Founding, as today, ‘exercise’ (of religion) connoted action, not just internal belief.”  Berg notes “James Madison's statement that religion includes ‘the manner of discharging’ duties to God and William Penn's statement that ‘liberty of conscience [means] not only a mere liberty of the mind, in believing or disbelieving...but the exercise of ourselves in a visible way of worship’.”
Following is a selection of quotes from some of America’s Founders that reflect the conviction that religion is not something only to be held closely within one’s thoughts and emotions but which people should have the freedom to live out in every sphere of life.  Certain phrases are emphasized to highlight that, in today’s political climate, the desire of some to curtail the right of Americans to live by their faith is being not just questioned but outright challenged.
  • [R]eligion, or the duty which we owe to our creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and this is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other. Virginia Bill of Rights Virginia Bill of Rights, Article 16, 1776
  • The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man: and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate ... It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.  James Madison A Memorial and Remonstrance, 1785
  • … serious religion, under its various denominations, is not only tolerated, but respected and practiced ... Benjamin Franklin Information to Those who would Remove to America, 1782
  • The civil rights of none, shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext infringed. James Madison proposed amendment to the Constitution, given in a speech in the House of Representatives, 1789
Family Research Council’s “Free to Believe” website documents more than 40 examples of Americans who have been legally penalized or threatened because they have exercised their religious faiths.  As Blaine Adamson and many others have found, the right to live according to the dictates of one’s faith is no longer something we can take for granted.
To the contrary: This precious right is something we must actively defend.  If our obligation to God does not precede our duty to the state, we are only subjects of the state, not citizens whose primary duty is to our Creator.  We must never surrender this fundamental American and, more broadly, human right.