Tuesday, July 14, 2020

The Dictates of Conscience & Exercise of Religion

Principle #2: Natural rights are bestowed by God

American liberty is the first attempt by the governments of men to found a nation on the proposition that all men are CREATED equal, that they stand equal before God, and are endowed by GOD with certain unalienable rights; rights that are preexistent to the institutions of government. As such, these natural rights are inalienable, unable to be forcibly severed from the individual because our rights are not allowance from governments of men, but rather a supreme gift from God.

The Constitution of the United States was written to limit government and thus leave the individual's natural rights to be securely exercised without improper constraints by the governments of men. The greatest blessing of this Constitutional government in my life is hard to parse out, because all of the God given rights we retain because of this inspired Constitutional government are essential to my ability to live my life in a way that allows me to progress along my path to happiness. If I had to choose which of my natural rights I cherish the most, I would choose what George Washington thought of as our first liberty.

The first amendment asserts the freedom of religion and the free exercise of conscience, freedom of speech, freedom to write and share our political ideals, and to peaceably assemble and associate in the public square. These liberties guard what is central to my life, my freedom to worship God after the dictates of my own conscience, to freely and openly exercise my religion in practice and deed, and to freely teach others the tenants of my faith. There is no freedom more important to me that these. To act and speak my conscience would be the greatest loss if the protections provided by our Constitutional government were to one day be dissolved.

Understanding the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment:

An influential founding document that established a precedent for religious freedom even within a state who had an established religion was the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780.

“The Declaration of Rights reminds citizens of their civic duties as well, including ‘the right as well as the duty of all men in society, publicly, and at stated seasons, to worship the SUPREME BEING.’ (Massachusetts Constitution, 1780) Such worship must follow the dictates of one’s own conscience or religious beliefs and not disturb the ‘public peace’ or the worship of others.” (The American Founding, Heritage Foundation commentary on Massachusetts Constitution, 1780)

When in the constitutional convention it was determined that the constitution should prohibit the establishment of a state religion it was never imagined that such a prohibition would lead to government initiatives to stifle the "free exercise thereof." Yet, progressives in America over the last fifty years have crafted a successful legal framework to transform the Establishment Clause into a wrecking ball, demolishing faith from large swaths of American public life. Today when most Americans think of the 1st Amendment and freedom of religion specifically they think of the words "separation of church and state," (this phrase comes from an 1801 private letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists) but few realize those words are found no-where in the Constitution nor is the concept widely articulated in founding documents. 

The 1st Amendment in it's entirety states:

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.

Freedom of Religion is often referred to as "the establishment clause," because the amendment prohibits the federal government from establishing a state religion or prohibiting the free exercise of religious rites, rituals, and observances. As understood in those times, having lived under the state religion of England, our founders did not want a federal government that could establish a state religion throughout the states. The 1st Amendment didn't apply to the states when it was ratified and many states continued to have established state religions.

What was unique about America at these times was a general belief that the individual were free to worship and follow the dictates of their own conscience, regardless of the state religion. In the years following the ratification of the Constitution, however, a movement to disestablish state churches made rapid progress. The principal driving force behind the drive to disestablish state churches in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was opposition to paying taxes to support a church other than the one that an individual attended. However, As early as 1783, legislatures began passing laws exempting people from religious taxation. In addition, the movement’s supporters also wished to prevent the civil government from coming between individuals and God and to be free to worship without interference. It was clear to Americans that religious freedom was a key tenant of their national faith and it didn't take long for Americans to turn away from the establishment of church religions.

What Americans held onto was the idea that religion played a critical role in the public life of the nation and that religious devotion should be encouraged and not punished. The Constitution has prohibited the establishment of a state religion but it was equally clear that the government wasn't to restrict the free exercise of religion. The twin rights in the 1st Amendment, the rights of free speech and peaceable assembly also protected the free exercise of religion. As people were free to proselytize in the public square and peacefully assemble to hold religious meetings.

One thing is certain, a right so precious to the individual and so critical to the happy maintenance of a free republic was never meant to drive religion out of the public square and therefore restrict the free exercise of it.

For an overview of the Constitutional Law history of the Establishment Clause, read "Reclaiming Religious Liberty by Restoring the Original Meaning of the Establishment Clause," by Kenneth Klukowski at the Heritage Foundation.

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