Christian religious liberty: Free exercise and no establishment
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In 1791, the Framers of the First Amendment included a very powerful statement regarding the freedom and liberty inherent to all U.S. citizens to practice their religion. Two specific clauses in the First Amendment have been the source of growing controversy: free exercise and no establishment. You may find that the crux of nearly every problem regarding freedom of religion or Christian religious liberty in the United States may be traced back to this simple yet complex clause. The First Amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Wow. Did the Framers think this would sum up all issues faced within their 18th century newborn nation? In 2011, churches, public schools, nonprofit and government organizations are continually entrenched in the very argument. When does Congress step back for fear of “promoting” or “establishing” a religion and when does that “stepping back” contribute to limiting the free religious exercise of that religion?” While these two clauses were meant to safeguard not only Christian religious liberty but also the rights of all those practicing faith in the country (albeit, there were not many countering faiths in the 18th century); debate based upon free exercise and no establishment is routinely witnessed throughout the nation.
As the United States continues to become one of the most (if not the supreme) religiously diverse nations, individuals continue to challenge government for hindering their religious freedoms or establishing one religion above another.
If a public school celebrates Christmas are the “establishing” a religion through promotion? If they tell a student not to wear a Christian tee-shirt, are they limiting that student’s “free exercise of religion?” These challenges do not pertain solely to Christians either. Virtually every religious group or movement may make the same arguments.
It is our First Amendment right that gives fringe groups and cults the ability to speak freely in public. Such is the case with the hate group the Westboro Baptist Church (and church is using the word loosely as the congregation consists of one man’s family members); but still, many across the nation would like to see the government step in and simply prohibit the group from their outdoor protests at the funerals of slain military heroes, members of the homosexual community, and essentially anyone that the group feels should have their funeral services disrespected due to their whims; yet “free exercise” allows the group and similar groups the freedom to continue practicing their religion.
The debate becomes more intense when you throw politics and political leaders in the mix. Should the “Ten Commandments” be displayed in courthouses? Should prayer be held during political events and meetings? If so, should prayer be predominantly Christian or should political meetings include a prayer panel board (if you will) of different faiths so everyone gets their turn at bat?
There was enormous outcry when New York Mayor Bloomberg announced there would not be a prayer service held at the September 11, 2011 memorial service at Ground Zero. Other government leaders silently made their own statements by joining in prayer when it was their time to speak and President Obama himself spent his time at the podium as Commander in Chief reciting Psalm 46. Were these attempts at quelling national fury or did these members of Congress simply feel they had a constitutional right to exercise their freedom of religion?
Numerous cases based on religious liberty make their way to civil court every year and the Supreme Court frequently becomes the final say as issues become more convoluted and difficult to separate. As more debate and discord spread throughout the nation regarding the differences in religion some have voiced an outcry at religion itself and have expressed a desire for the government to ban religion in the United States entirely, blaming nearly all of societal ills on the First Amendment right.
America is not a troubled society because of freedom of religion, but rather America became a superpower due to it. America was an experiment that worked. Though we can never fully understand the original vision the 18th century Framers had for this nation when they implied this separation of church and state, we are carefully walking the lines between religious liberty and intolerance every day, and with each footstep, we set new markers in the ground and create new paths.
With every battle, argument, and court case we reshape America’s future and set new guardrails for those to practice their faith freely. How can an Atheist, a Muslim, a Jew, a Christian, and a cult member coexist peacefully, side by side in an environment that recognizes everyone’s right to religious freedom without the government governing it by showing preference to one over the other or limiting one group’s rights?
Granted, Americans make many mistakes. We do not get it right in our personal lives and our government is not without fault. But the very fabric of our nation is to achieve this Utopian dream where every individual has an unlimited right to find God for him or herself; in whatever way they choose to do so; and to practice that belief without the constraints of an oppressive government.
America may not be perfect, but as long as we have mosques, temples, synagogues and churches on every street corner; we are getting there.