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“Freedom requires religion… just as
religion requires freedom” (4) is what Mitt Romney insisted while giving his
speech at the George H.W. Bush Library. Religious freedom; from the colonial
era to the present, have played a significant role in reshaping the political
life in the United States. Religious freedom is a fundamental human right that
gives our lives meaning and dignity and enables all of us to think and act upon
and express what we genuinely believed.

Everything has an origin – The
earliest of religious freedom was established in the ancient Persian empire by
Cyrus the Great in the seventh century. Freedom of religious worship was found
in the Mauryan Empire by Ashoka in India. Likewise, in the American colonies
during the 17th century, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison argued for a
language in the Bill of Rights that would separate church and states. In the
16th century, religious persecution was common in England, and they didn’t want
the same problem to plague the new world. The country’s founders who belong to
different religious backgrounds themselves knew the best way to protect
religious freedom was to keep the government out of religion. Thus, the first
amendment was drafted that would guarantee a separation of church from the
states. This fundamental freedom right is a significant reason why the United
States has been able to avoid religious conflict and was able to maintain
religious freedom.

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Until the 19th century, religion had
only one definition – protestant Christianity. Catholics, Jews, Mormons,
Jehovah’s Witnesses, along with other denominations alike, who failed to
demonstrate morality were persecuted and discriminated both legally and
socially. Much of the United States was controlled by Protestant Christianity
who sponsored a moral regime that was both coercive and exclusionary. Old line
proponent of protestant Christianity claimed that religion was necessary to
reinforce good that will in return benefit the welfare of the state. Religious
establishments had significant control over laws governing the state.
Religion’s place in the public sphere had catastrophic consequences as religion
constrained religious freedom rather than it promoted it. Having a wall of
separation was imminent of religious liberty to prevail. For example, Saudi
Arabia has a monarchy system controlled by the house of Saud, religious freedom
is limited, non-Muslims are subject to discrimination, harassment, detention, and, for non-citizens,
deportation. Government does not provide legal protection for religious freedom;
non-Muslims are prohibited from entering the holiest city of Makkah and
Madinah. Comparing United States to other nations in the east, religious
freedom is possible and prevailing at its own pace.

 

First amendment was an essential
first step towards religious liberty. According to liberal evangelical Randall
Balmer, he states that “Religious right has failed to appreciate the genius of
the first amendment” (3). Though, according to David Sehat “The idea of strict
separation was radically new. It required a revolution in political theory that
involved treating a wide range of behavior and belief as off-limits to the
government” (17). The early debates on religious freedom had not fully
developed yet, and everyone claimed to uphold religious liberty. It became a
battle for those who wanted to establish a churchly state, and those wanted to
create a secular state. If the Christian institution could gain control of the
state, they could dictate their moral standards, which the founding fathers
understood very well especially Madison who had learned his lesson in the
Virginia legislation. 

 

One of our prevalent myth is that
religious freedoms come from the constitution, which David Sehat, argues that
it is a myth to consider that the First Amendment protects the religious
liberty. It is without a doubt true that Churches were still inseparable from
the state even after the first amendment was in effect. Madison feared
-ambiguity that people might narrow down the interpretation of the first
amendment. This practice continued till the 19th century until the supreme
court introduced the first amendment to states through the due process clause
of the 14th amendment, this was ruled in Everson v. Board of Education of the
Township of Ewing, which allowed the federal government to interfere in state
religious matters. But on the other hand, the women’s suffrage movement and the
black slaves were given the right of a citizen in 19th and 15th amendment
respectively. But women and black Americans had to endure years of
discriminatory practices that prevented them from their legal rights.
Unfortunately, conscience and intentions cannot be governed by the religious
freedom laws, but laws such as the first amendment and free exercise rights can
be used as a tool to set positive precedence for future incidence. Religious
freedom acts as a dynamic equilibrium, where if a social system experiences
disturbance it will respond to restore a new equilibrium state. For example,
Mississippi governor Phil Bryant passes a controversial law stating, “state
government will not punish people who refuse to provide services to people
because of a religious opposition to same-sex marriage, extramarital sex or
transgender people.” which means that Church, religious group and private
business can use the law to refuse because of moral object. But, in a recent
Supreme Court case, Charlie Craig and David Mullins were refused service by
Jack Phillips for belonging to LGBT. Philips claimed that it was against his
religious beliefs and free speech but, Smith V. Employment divisions has stated
that religious motivation doesn’t entitle a believer to disobey a generally
applicable law. But in defense, in a Supreme Court case – Church of the Lukumi
Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah, where animal sacrifice was prohibited by the city
council outlaw’s animal sacrifices relating to Santeria rituals. The Supreme
Court didn’t find compelling interest – Judge Kennedy stated “The ordinances
singled out the activities of the Santeria faith and suppressed more religious
conduct than was necessary to achieve their stated ends. Only conduct tied to
religious belief was burdened. The ordinances targeted religious behavior,
therefore they failed to survive the rigors of strict scrutiny.”

 

Previous court battles have consistently
held, that the right to free exercise of religion is not absolute. Though the
first amendment has prohibited the state from establishing a religion or
prohibiting the free right thereof. There have been many instances where public
welfare has taken precedence over religious practices. For example, in the 19th
century, some of the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
traditionally practiced polygamy with an argument that it was protected by the
first amendment, in 1789 the Supreme Court upheld the criminal conviction of
one of Charles B. Reynold under a federal law banning polygamy. The Court
reasoned that to allow polygamy would make an excuse for a full range of
religious beliefs such as human sacrifice, stating that “The First Amendment
protected religious belief, but it did not protect religious practices that
were judged to be criminal such as bigamy. Those who practice polygamy could no
more be exempt from the law than those who may wish to practice human sacrifice
as part of their religious belief” So, if one were part of a religion that
believed in human sacrifice, the First Amendment would protect one’s belief,
but not the practice. Similarly, this principle has been applied to those
attempting to claim religious exemptions for using illegal substances
–Employment Division V. Smith–

 

United States today is the most
diverse nation in the world, expanding from a single protestant society to a
host of thousands of religious groups with ranging beliefs. The civic framework
defined by the First amendment protects and enables people of all backgrounds
to live together as a one nation. The fact that majority of people in United
State do not share a common beliefs on minorities does not make those beliefs
and practices are not protected. First amendment serves as a mechanism that
promotes religious liberty, but it is worth reminding that religious freedom is
absolute and entirely depends on the individual’s morals and conscious

 

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