Lawmakers Must Act to Protect Religious Liberty

The following commentary first appeared in the Indianapolis Star on January 23, 2016.

Less than a year ago, the solicitor general of the United States stood before the Supreme Court of the United States — and, by extension, the entire nation — and admitted that changing how we define marriage would present “an issue” for religious organizations seeking to be faithful to their beliefs and convictions. Now, as legislatures convene across the nation and in Washington, D.C., we have arrived at the first opportunity to address that “issue.”

It was Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for a majority of the court, who urged the continued protection of religious liberty in a post-Obergefell world. “[I]t must be emphasized,” he wrote last June, “that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction” according to those religious doctrines.

But, just how much protection people of faith will have to advocate for their beliefs may ultimately be decided by the action — or inaction — of lawmakers nationwide. Will lawmakers heed the direction Justice Kennedy provides and protect religious liberty? Or, as Justice Alito warned in his dissent, will the Obergefell  v. Hodges decision be used to “vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy” and “stamp out every vestige of dissent?”

That is a conflict that should be simple for lawmakers to avoid. People of good will have disagreed over consequential matters for most of human history. Perhaps better than any other culture, America has uniquely provided people of faith the freedom to a self-determined life governed according to their most central convictions. That should not change now.

Religious liberty in America protects the right of its citizens to “adhere to religious doctrines” and then “to advocate” according to those convictions without fearing the reprisal of its government. This is the promise of religious liberty guaranteed by the First Amendment.

That is a promise our lawmakers must continue to uphold, in this and every generation. Lawmakers should take steps to ensure that First Amendment rights are protected at every level of government.

Employees must remain legally protected from being punished by employers based upon their religious beliefs.

Ministries, motivated by the religious doctrines central to their faith, must continue to be free to do good works — works that lower poverty, increase human flourishing, and strengthen the bonds of the family unit.

Small-business owners ought to be protected and encouraged to abide by their religious conscience when conducting business. Our economy is strengthened by diversity — including the diversity found in the religious beliefs of business owners.

The men and women of our armed forces must be afforded continued religious liberty by our lawmakers. As they do their duty to defend our first liberty, let us never deny them theirs.
Students must be afforded the academic freedom to express their religion in school assignments. Affording students the liberty of conscience teaches them their faith is a welcome addition to the public square.

Most importantly, lawmakers must ensure that the public square will continue to be one in which Americans may continue to debate matters of faith.

Lawmakers may be tempted to place limits on how and when religious liberty is protected. That is a mistake. Religious liberty is a fundamental American right, protected by the Constitution.

Compromising lawmakers risk turning religious liberty into a legal right granted by permission of the state. That would work if religious liberty was a gift from the state, to be exercised according to its whim and fancy. But it is not. It is a fundamental human right, guaranteeing freedom from the state’s intervention in matters of conscience.

In the forming of our “more perfect union” so many years ago, we did not cede religious liberty. We took steps to ensure it would be protected and preserved for future generations. It falls to this generation of lawmakers to carry forward that great promise of the First Amendment and ensure that this right of religious liberty — our first liberty — continues.

Jeremiah DysComment