Religious freedom only for some is religious freedom for none.
For millennia, religious conflicts over one “right” religion have resulted in reigns of terror and untold amounts of bloodshed. From the Spanish Inquisition, the European witch trials where tens of thousands died and the Crusades to the Mormon extermination order from Missouri Gov. Lilburn Boggs in 1838 and today’s ongoing genocides, religious intolerance has been the norm for most of the history of the world.
The Salem witch trials hold personal meaning for me. Strict Puritanical theocracy of New England spilled over into Salem, Mass., where fear of the devil and the witches who did his bidding boiled over in 1692. On July 19, 1692, my ninth great-grandmother Susanna North Martin was hanged as a witch. Her biggest “crime,” it seems, is that she was outspoken and she called out nonsense when she saw it, even if it involved the town’s (male) power brokers.
Thankfully, it wasn’t long before more rational minds prevailed, ended the witch trials, exonerated the victims and offered recompense to most families. However, the stain of those trails was on the minds of the Founding Fathers less than 100 years later when they contemplated and then codified the idea of religious liberty into this country’s founding documents.
James Madison, speaking on the proposed First Amendment to the Constitution, said: “The civil rights of none, shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext infringed.”
It is clear that the founders of our country believed that freedom to worship “how, where, when and what they may” was an inalienable right granted by our creator. They agreed there should be no state religion, but they also believed that the individual states could decide if they wanted to create a state religion.
In reality, all 13 colonies had established some form of state-supported religion by 1702. This support came in various forms, including requirements for voting or serving in the legislature, receiving tax support from the people of the state, land grants and, in some cases, slave labor if the prescribed Sabbath worship did not take place.
Some states changed their statutes regarding state religion around the time the Constitution was passed, but some held on into the mid-1850s. The states that had lingering religious requirements found them invalidated after the passage of the 14th Amendment on July 28, 1868.
In 1988, Ronald Reagan addressed the Alabama Legislature: “To those who cite the First Amendment as reason for excluding God from more and more of our institutions and everyday life, may I just say: The First Amendment of the Constitution was not written to protect the people of this country from religious values; it was written to protect religious values from government tyranny.”
Today, the attacks on religious liberty are growing. Some wonder if common ground can be found. I believe the answer is yes but the conversations will not be easy. Just look at the Masterpiece Cakeshop case ruled on by the Supreme Court last week. The Colorado Civil Rights Commission exhibited blatant hostility toward baker Jack Phillips’ religious views as they reviewed the case.
Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote, “No bureaucratic judgment condemning a sincerely held religious belief as ‘irrational’ or ‘offensive’ will ever survive strict scrutiny under the First Amendment.”
Based on the reactions I’ve seen since the decision, the gulf between those who believe this is a First Amendment case and those who believe it’s about “sanctioning discrimination” is deep and wide. It’s not over yet. There are a number of other cases yet to be decided that will help decide what this ultimately means to business owners.
Respect goes both ways. You can stand up for your religious beliefs without being a jerk about it. And you should respect others’ firmly held religious beliefs without being a jerk about it.
The Supreme Court was very clear. It was wrong of the government to mock and condemn a sincerely held religious belief. Let’s hope we can find some respectful middle ground. It’s going to take work from all of us.
Holly Richardson is looking forward to her own daughter’s wedding this week. The family is baking its own cake.