The sound of explosions, the smell of gunpowder, and the bright splashes of color against the dark night sky were not always a cause for celebration as the fireworks we watch on this Fourth of July will be. Instead, to our early countrymen, these sensations came amidst a fight for our independence against an overbearing monarchy that restricted and ignored the freedoms of his people.
On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress wrote our Declaration of Independence and proclaimed the underlying values of our nation — that all people are endowed with certain unalienable rights and that governments derive their legitimacy based on their ability to secure these rights. Chief among these values was the right to religious freedom. As James Madison wrote in Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, the right to religious liberty is a foundational freedom because “faith predates all other quests — rooted in nature itself, in our humanness and our quest to discover the eternal.”
The First Amendment of our Constitution protects the individual exercise of religion. Because, as Madison wrote, religion is so central to who we are as humans, the free exercise of religion includes a broad range of actions: to publicly join with others in observance, to choose for oneself what religion to follow, and to publicly or privately manifest one’s belief in worship, observance, practice, and teaching.
The issue of free religious exercise confronts an issue that every diverse civilization like America has to deal with — how to best live with our difference in a pluralistic society. American has resolved some of the intricacies of this dilemma by going beyond mere toleration. Instead, we respect the legitimacy of beliefs with which we disagree based on our understanding of human dignity. In other words we have recognized the right to be wrong and we respect the faith and conviction accompanying those religious beliefs and thoughts.
But the religious quest is not just individual, it is a shared human desire to know something of the divine more deeply. Consequently, religious institutions and organizations are an important part of the practice of one’s faith. In fact, religious organizations are central to our understanding of limited government. Our First Amendment begins by limiting the scope of governmental authority over religious matters: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” If the state does not have control over the heads of religious bodies, it follows that the state is not omnipotent. Instead, being a government of limited, enumerated powers, the First Amendment creates a space of autonomy wherein religious institutions are free from government interference to act out their beliefs freely.
Our nation is founded on an understanding of the benefits of religion, not on indifference, tolerance, or even neutrality towards religion. Throughout American history, members of religious groups have created organizations, hospitals, and schools to serve food and shelter to the poor, treat sick patients in hospitals, and educate the country’s youth. Citizens have been motivated by their faith to publicly advocate and reform some of the most heinous injustices in our country. Where would America be today without people of faith like Harriet Beecher Stowe, Susan B. Anthony, or Martin Luther King?
In recognition of the importance of religion in American society, laws have traditionally accommodated the consciences of the faithful. In the 18th century, Quakers were allowed to refuse conscription based on religious conviction, 20th century Jehovah’s Witnesses may refrain from saying the pledge of allegiance, and many religious institutions are granted tax exemptions.
Today, however, the right of religious liberty is being attacked by a President who wishes to ignore our inalienable rights and by a government seeking to expand its sphere of influence beyond the secular and into the sacred. One need look no further than the HHS mandate which requires group health plans to pay for services such as contraception, sterilization, and preventative services education. For many people of faith — including small business owners, religious non-profit organizations, and religious colleges — the government has given them a choice. They may either violate their conscience and provide these services or cease to exist due to the financial penalties of failing to conform to the law.
The impact of the Health and Human Services mandate on religious freedom is two fold and interferes with our individual right to religious freedom and the role of religious institutions in limiting government.
First, because practicing the tenets of one’s faith, such as caring for the poor and sick, is an essential component of religious liberty, the HHS mandate violates the inalienable right to freely exercise religion by financially forcing the closure of religious organizations who choose not to violate their conscience. Second, the role of government will necessarily be expanded, as traditional institutions of civil society will close, thinning the buffer between government and its citizens.
John Adams wrote, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” As we prepare to celebrate the founding of our nation, let us bear in mind one the fundamental principles on which it stands: the freedom to choose or not to choose to follow a religion and its accompanying practices, is central to the inalienable rights we have as Americans and as humans.
Rick Santorum, a former representative and senator from Pennsylvania, ran as a candidate for the Republican nomination for president. He is the founder of Patriot Voices, an organization to mobilize one million conservatives committed to promoting faith, family, freedom, and opportunity.