America is known as the “land of the free.” We even sing those words at sporting events.
Yet lately it seems that many Americans are willing to deprive others of the freedoms they demand for themselves. Intolerance of diverse opinions and beliefs has become a pervasive threat to our country’s existence as the most free nation on Earth. Every day there are news reports of threats to free speech and the free press, as well as attacks on various faiths and places of worship.
Some people locally even express support for presidential efforts to discredit and censor the news media and to take actions such as limiting citizens’ rights to protest and forcing Americans to participate in displays of patriotism or religion against their will. These are the kinds of authoritarian controls that happen in places like North Korea, Iran, and Russia, not in the United States of America.
At least not yet.
America today is far different than the country envisioned by our Founding Fathers when they amended the Constitution in 1791 to add the Bill of Rights. These 10 amendments were written to define and protect the freedoms created to make our country a uniquely free constitutional republic. The most powerful and far reaching is the First Amendment, which says: “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.”
Many of our remarkable freedoms are contained in just that one sentence. It has been the subject of more legal cases and U.S. Supreme Court rulings than any other part of the U.S. Constitution. Freedom of speech and of the press have been hot topics in the news lately, but the most controversial and misunderstood part of Amendment One is about religion.
The first part of Amendment One is called the Establishment Clause. It says that our government cannot establish an official religion or even show preference for one religion over another. This is the basis for the “separation of church and state” designed to keep politics out of religion and religion out of politics.
Some people falsely believe that the Establishment Clause was used to ban prayer in schools. Prayer is not banned, but every religion has to be allowed equal prayer opportunity, and nobody can be required to participate in any religious observance. Even in a rural area like Robeson County it is not uncommon to have students of several different faiths in just one class. I learned more about Catholicism, Islam, and Hinduism from students than I ever did in my college religion classes.
The second part is called the Free Exercise Clause, and it bans the government from interfering with the way a religion is practiced in most cases. Obviously extreme acts such as physical violence are not protected, and discrimination has been disallowed in most cases. Religion cannot be used as a legal defense to harm other people.
Sometimes expressing one’s own beliefs interferes with the protected freedoms of other people and creates complicated situations. Most people have heard about bakers who were sued for refusing to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. They cited their Christian beliefs about marriage as the reason for their refusal, but were still found liable for the financial and personal damage that their decision caused.
It might seem that the bakers were punished for their personal religious beliefs, but the Bible does not require Christians to practice their religion by refusing to serve those deemed to be sinners. The fact that Christ did not shun sinners and that the bakers had previously provided cakes for adulterers, divorcees, and other people who broke God’s laws were factors considered in the legal ruling.
Mixing religion into business or politics very often causes personal, legal, and constitutional conflicts. There are many different religions and each one has very different ideas. Perhaps that is the reason the Founding Fathers specifically included religion in the First Amendment.
As a Christian and liberal Democrat, I am a strong believer in keeping religion separate from government. I don’t want the government to interfere in my religion nor do I want my religion involved in politics, and I will not attend a church that insists on mixing the two. I also don’t want a preacher who is a politician or a politician who is a preacher.
The First Amendment is often said to provide freedom of religion, but it also provides freedom from religion. It ensures that the government cannot interfere with our desire to practice the religion of our choice, and that our government will not require us to practice or be governed by a religion of any kind. Millions of people around the world face religious persecution of one kind or the other from their government. Amendment One assures Americans that we will never face that kind of abuse from our own.
The First Amendment also guarantees our rights to express our opinions and beliefs freely without government interference, to gather in peaceful protests, and to ask the government to remedy situations that are not fair and equal for everyone. It allows us to speak up and request change without fear of being legally punished for doing so.
The U.S. Constitution protects us from political and religious persecution from our own government. Unfortunately protection from the intolerance of other people is not as easily achieved.
Patsy Sheppard, a St. Pauls resident, is a retired educator and active locally in the Democratic Party.