Protect Religious Liberty

In a bare 16 words, our Constitution enshrines a principle of freedom that remains among the most vital to human dignity across the ages of written law:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof

These words protect every American’s freedom to live and work according to the dictates of his or her conscience while respecting others who do the same. Religious liberty and the pluralism it sustains is a legacy of the Founding Fathers, who were intent on building a society in which no individual or family would fear for life or property because of creed or innermost conviction.

The Founders understood that vibrant faith communities are essential to ordered liberty, promoting well-being among individuals and families and motivating the care for others in civil society. Many of our nation’s best opportunities for education, social services, health care, and much more are provided by faith communities. This is why we should protect Americans’ freedom to live out their convictions not only in how they worship, but in how they work and serve others. Unfortunately, despite the many benefits of religious practice to society, religious expression in the public square faces increasing challenges.

That certain lawmakers have seen fit to water down protections for religious liberty in exchange for political gain is a stain upon the nation’s legacy of protecting fundamental freedoms. Today, liberal policymakers reduce the robust religious freedom understood by our Founders and enshrined in the Constitution to a mere “freedom to worship.” Faith, in their view, should remain a private affair—suitable for worship in homes and churches but left at the doors of the workplace or charitable endeavors.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently rejected this narrow view of religious freedom, ruling that the government cannot force family businesses to violate their beliefs by providing coverage of drugs and devices that can end the life of a human embryo. This is a step in the right direction, but this recent decision neither protects all Americans’ religious freedom when it comes to health care nor ends the danger they face from the marshalled forces of intolerance. Hundreds of other individuals, family businesses, and charities are continuing litigation over the coercive health care mandate. The fight for freedom of conscience on this front remains active.

Threats to religious liberty are not confined to issues of health care. In many places, the effort to redefine marriage has turned into a direct assault on Americans’ freedom to speak and live out the truth about marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Already, in Washington, D.C., Illinois, and Massachusetts, faith-based adoption and foster care organizations have been forced to shutter their agencies out of religious or moral objections to placing children with same-sex couples. Family businesses like photographers, bakers, florists, and many others involved in the wedding industry have been hauled into court because they declined to provide their services for a same-sex ceremony in violation of their religious beliefs.

Washington can act now to stem the tide. Policy should prohibit the federal government from discriminating against individuals or organizations—whether nonprofit or for-profit—that believe marriage is the union of one man and one woman or that sexual relations are reserved for marriage. Individuals and groups that hold those beliefs should be free from government discrimination in tax policy, employment, licensing, accreditation, or contracting.

American families should not be forced to disregard their deeply held beliefs simply because they go into business to provide for themselves and employees. We should be free to live and work in accordance with our deepest convictions. Protecting religious freedom preserves the pluralism and individual liberty upon which America was founded. Conservatives must strive to preserve a society in which, in the words of Hebrew scripture as quoted by George Washington, “every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

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