President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his “Four Freedoms” speech to Congress on Jan. 6, 1941, outlining goals for liberal democracies around the world. He specifically used this speech to begin our response to fascism that threatened the world.
The Second Freedom acknowledged America’s celebration of the freedom of religion. The main body of our Constitution bars a religious test as a qualification for any office or public trust. This means anyone otherwise qualified, whether Buddhist, Confucian, Christian, Daoist, Hindu, Jew, Muslim, Native American, Wiccan, Yoruban or other may serve and protect our country.
The Bill of Rights’ Establishment Clause assures government may not require participation in a specific religion. Thus neither Baptist nor Episcopalian needs pay for another’s beliefs. It assures parents the right to provide religious education for their children without interference by officials of the state.
This reflected Jefferson’s belief “civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry ...” He extended his objection by noting the establishment of state religion corrupts that religion by bribing those who profess to follow it.
The Free Exercise of Religion Clause allows the wide variety of beliefs and opinions that characterize the rich life of religion in our democracy. While the government may limit specific actions, such as polygamy, the beliefs are to be respected. In simpler terms, the Supreme Court has opined that the state must show a compelling interest in restricting religious activities.
This enshrinement, of religion freedom and its beliefs, reached a zenith when Edward Schemmp, a Unitarian Universalist, filed suit against the Abington School District to prevent its attempts to inculcate his children with a religious education through school prayer and Bible reading. In an 8-to-1 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed his right to provide his children’s religious training.
The consequence was the prohibition of prayer and Bible reading sponsored by school officials. The reaction to the decision at the time was mixed. But, eventually, trust in the court and our republic prevailed. Religious freedom in the United States seemed assured.
In the 1970s, a series of Supreme Court decisions challenged the tax exempt status of Bob Jones University because of its refusal to comply with anti-discrimination laws. The court affirmed the right of the IRS to impose taxes and penalties on the university. This led to the rise of the political action committees associated with the religious right.
Among the first moves of this political movement was to change the topic from discrimination and taxes to more activating positions in favor of school prayer and creation science, as well as opposing abortion, contraception, sex education, and LGBTQ rights. These positions are a mash-up of an unholy confusion of intolerance, supposedly based on Mosaic and Sharia Law.
The battle to establish a narrowly defined religion rages. The fight against bigotry and defending religious freedom must continue by opposing the religious right.