The Freedom of Religion
“The Very Origin of Existence of the United States”Even though the Framers of the Constitution were very careful to give only a few delegated powers to each of the three branches of government, that is, about twenty powers to congress, six areas of power to the president, and only eleven kinds of cases assigned to the federal courts, still there were some who were not satisfied that enough protection had been provided to the people and the states in the Constitution. They therefore let it be known that a Bill of Rights had to be included in order to receive their endorsement. This was the reason the Bill of Rights was nearly the first item of business taken up by the new government.
When a Bill of Rights was suggested at the last minute in the convention, some of the Framers said they did not think it was necessary because they had not given the national government enough power to trample on the rights of the people. Some of the wiser observers of history, like George Mason, however, knew human nature and he would not be satisfied until the protection of a Bill of Rights was added.
It is interesting that the Bill of Rights includes a Preamble, which most Americans have never read because it is not included in most printings. It reflects the importance the Founders placed on the protection of some very special rights mentioned in the Bill of Rights:
Freedom of Religion:
The freedoms of speech and press are guaranteed in the very first amendment to the Constitution and thereby prevent the federal government from any action dealing with these two sacred rights of citizens. If any laws were needed in these areas they were to be left to the states’ jurisdiction. It would seem then that that was all that was needed to keep the national government in check, since the freedom to say and write whatever one wishes would give one complete freedom of conscience to also believe whatever one wishes. But the Founders knew something more was needed. Constitutional scholar Dallin H. Oakes explains that the freedom to practice one’s religious beliefs should receive an even greater position than the freedom of speech and press in the First Amendment. Said he:
The Most Important of the Rights Listed
- “The right to freedom of religion undergirds the very origin and existence of the United States.” And that:
- “Freedom of religious belief and practice is a universal human right and fundamental freedom…” (22 U.S. Code § 6401)
“Congress shall make no law… prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”The Founders knew that beliefs drive actions. History is full of such examples. Without the ability to act on ones’ beliefs, the beliefs are really not fully protected as sacred. For this reason, the Founders included not only the prohibition on the federal government from telling people what they must believe (establishing a religion), but also a prohibition against the federal government from preventing citizens to freely exercise their religious beliefs (prohibiting the free exercise thereof). In America, citizens were free to show by their actions what they believed in their hearts. The Bible is filled with examples, parables, and doctrines to the effect that unless a person’s actions reflect a person’s belief, he is a hypocrite, a whited sepulchre, or as sounding brass or tinkling cymbal. Actions must follow beliefs if humanity is to rise above the natural man. It would seem then that any government which prevents its citizens from acting on their beliefs is reflecting the tool of tyrants and is using an age-old technique to gain master over its citizenry.
Should there be any limits on the exercise of one’s religion?Does freedom of religion, then, mean one can do anything he wants to do in the name of religion? The Founders said not exactly. Like any other freedom, it must be held within the restraints of morality and reason. But freedom of religion, as well as speech and press, are such sensitive issues, the Founders felt that any limits on these must be established by state and local governments, where abuses can be more easily detected and corrected and where differences can be allowed from one place to another. Hence, the prohibitions in the First Amendment are directed toward the federal government and are absolute. Not even the federal courts were to take on such cases. The states were left free to establish any regulations in these matters.
Thomas Jefferson explains that even the freedom to exercise one’s religion has its limitation when it comes violating another’s unalienable rights. One cannot commit a crime and justify it on the basis of religion:
But what happens when government officials begin to think they can and should regulate the way people operate their businesses and begin to demand that they do things that violate the people’s conscience and their religious beliefs in areas that have nothing to do with protecting unalienable rights?
The encroachment of government on the exercise of religion todayIn a recent interview, Hannah Smith, senior counsel for The Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, gave this summary of the intrusion of the federal government on the exercise of religious freedom:
When governments begin to mandate that a person must perform an act which directly contradicts the way a person choses to exercise his religious beliefs, it is an affront to the Founders, to the American way of life, and to the Constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion. This is especially egregious when the federal government does so because, under the Founders’ formula for freedom, it is strictly prohibited from involving itself in such matters, as before noted. It is opening the door wide to tyranny over the most precious American freedoms and, hence, to all our freedoms. Restricting our exercise of religious beliefs is, in effect, denying us religious freedom, the most precious of all our rights.
Hopefully, the time is coming when enough Americans will awaken to a sense of our awful situation.
Earl Taylor, Jr.