Freedom of Religion

A Mirror for America Essay

“… It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God,” writes Thomas Jefferson in his Notes on Virginia, “It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Such a view of religion — of detachment and general respect for the faiths of one’s neighbors — forms one of the fundamental American values that were first elucidated in the Declaration of Independence and later in the Bill of Rights. Given the diverse religious background of the original Thirteen Colonies, it’s only fitting that freedom of religion be enshrined as one of the most important liberties retained by American people. To this end, public officials and civil servants should keep in mind the following principles in order to preserve this civil right.

First is the principle of neutrality. Any and all laws pertaining to religion must be applied equally to all religions, regardless of the personal affiliation or preference of the officials involved. As stated in the First Amendment to the Constitution, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” The implications of this statement lend themselves to neutrality: to avoid “respecting an establishment of religion”, one must avoid giving any such establishment favorable terms over other religions and should only create secular laws which respect all religious establishments equally; likewise, laws targeting specific religious practices such as the wearing of certain clothing or the observance of certain rituals should be condemned as impeding the “free exercise” of religion. Neutrality addresses these implications by removing favoritism from the table and eliciting empathy from involved officials through their own religious communities. This allows for even the most fringe of religious minorities to live in the United States without fear of legal persecution.

One must not confuse the principle of neutrality as only a legal principle, however. Officials and civil servants alike should seek to foster religious neutrality in their words and actions as well as in legislation. Reaching out a hand to religious minorities in one’s district helps build bridges that allow groups to unite over race, gender, immigration, sexuality, mental health, culture, and worker issues rather than remaining divided. Additionally, writing speeches with religious neutrality in-mind — not favoring any denomination or even leaving out religious overtones entirely — helps change the perceptions of the public and makes them more open to the idea of religious plurality. The insistent chorus from the podium that “America is a Christian nation” must stop if religious freedom is to survive.

Additionally, religious neutrality has many benefits for officials themselves. With the vast number of religions in the United States, officials cannot count on their own religious beliefs to match those of their constituents. A Roman Catholic might find themselves answering to a district of Protestants and Reformed Jews, or a Sunni Muslim to a district of Shi’a Muslims and Evangelical Christians. In order to better represent and satisfy their constituencies, public officials need to understand that religious plurality can only be met with religious neutrality. Favoring no religion in particular is the only reasonable, practical solution to be reached when one’s constituents may be at odds with each other on religious values, principles, and laws. Any other way will ultimately result in infighting as religious groups will attempt to wrest control of a representative seat from an official who is not of their religion or will attempt to sabotage each other in order to sway the official’s words and ideas.

The second principle is restraint. Better known as the “Lemon Test” as defined under the precedent set in Supreme Court case Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), the principle of restraint calls for legislators to avoid “excessive entanglement” with religious institutions. While this wording may appear vague, in reality it is a key guideline for preserving religious liberties. The premise can be described as an application of Jefferson’s “wall of separation between Church & State”, as stated in his Letter to the Danbury Baptists.

The so-called “wall of separation” occurs when there is little — ideally, no — interference between the affairs of the church and those of the state. Crossover between the two — such as when the state pays staff salaries in parochial schools — constitutes “excessive entanglement” under the Lemon Test and muddles the lines between church and state, resulting in unfair treatment of religious minorities or those who are nonreligious. Those who are religious minorities or who are nonreligious may not be able to apply for such parochial schools or may not agree with the religious education provided, which does not apply in public schools. Thus, the church in this case benefits as its educational facilities are funded by the state whilst still not accessible to the general public as they are sectarian rather than secular institutions.

Restraint is applied when officials understand that the affairs of the church and the state ought to be kept separate to preserve religious diversity and freedom in the United States. Officials should avoid having the state purchase public goods and services — such as education and healthcare — from church institutions, avoid funding church or religious missions which would be accompanied by religious preaching or education, and avoid passing laws which impact religious life without equally impacting the secular or public sphere. While the former two ensure the church does not have excessive control or entanglement with the state, the latter ensures the inverse: that the state does not excessively meddle in the affairs of the church.

The state participating in church affairs curtails religious liberty for obvious reasons, and exercising restraint here is key. Legislators should not seek to regulate the goings-on of a church unless there is serious concern for public safety, as any other reason imposes the desires of a religious majority — the Judeo-Christian culture which influenced the United States’ founding and its current culture — onto a religious group through government intervention.

Finally, restraint benefits public officials in that it simplifies legal codes and reduces the odds of government gridlock. Limiting laws so they do not impose on religious institutions without secular concerns ensures that bills do not flood the legislature concerning regulation of any specific religious practice, institution, or organization without due cause (that is, the public interest). This allows officials to focus on the main business of running the country and serving their constituents.

Freedom of religion is the bedrock upon which many colonists based their decision to flee England and establish new lives in America. The preservation of this freedom is essential to the continued well-being of the Republic and the diverse array of religious citizens and residents who call this nation home. Through the principles of neutrality and restraint, government officials can find a balance between safeguarding public safety and the public interest and protecting religious minorities from persecution, thereby ensuring the freedom of religion afforded by the Founding Fathers to all Americans.

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