Liberty and eternal vigilance


“The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt.”

John Philpot Curran (1750-1817; Irish lawyer, judge and orator)

Today, July 2, marks the 239th anniversary of the Second Continental Congress’ passage of a simple yet profound resolution, proposed by Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee, declaring the colonies independent states – as the British fleet and army arrived at New York.

Immediately thereafter, Congress debated the draft document formally declaring independence that had been prepared by the “Committee of Five” – John Adams, Roger Sherman, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, and Thomas Jefferson – making some alterations and deletions over the next two days. On the morning of the 4th, the Declaration of Independence was officially adopted.

On July 3, in the now-famous letter following the vote on Lee’s resolution from Massachusetts delegate John Adams to his wife, Abigail, Adams enthusiastically exclaimed:

The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America.

I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.

You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. – I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. – Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not. (emphasis added)

Our traditions now commemorate the adoption date of the Declaration of Independence – the Fourth of July – as our country’s birthday. Gratefully, generations of Americans have had cause to continue the celebrations envisioned by Adams, whose subsequent letter whispers earnest reminders to us from the grave:

Posterity! You will never know how much it cost the present generation to preserve your freedom! I hope you will make a good use of it. (April 26, 1777; emphasis added)

And yet recent events prompt heightened concern and therefore need for greater vigilance about freedoms perhaps taken for granted; religious freedom, in particular.

As noted by Chief Justice John Roberts in his minority opinion regarding the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges “same-sex marriage” decision, announced last Friday, June 26:

Today’s decisioncreates serious questions about religious liberty. Many good and decent people oppose same-sex marriage as a tenet of faith, and their freedom to exercise religion is—unlike the right imagined by the majority—actually spelled out in the Constitution. Amdt. 1 [1st Amendment].

Respect for sincere religious conviction has led voters and legislators in every State that has adopted same-sex marriage democratically to include accommodations for religious practice. The majority’s decision imposing same-sex marriage cannot, of course, create any such accommodations. The majority graciously suggests that religious believers may continue to “advocate” and “teach” their views of marriage. Ante, at 27 [on page 27 in the majority Opinion of the Court, delivered by Justice Kennedy]. The First Amendment guarantees, however, the freedom to “exercise” religion. Ominously, that is not a word the majority uses. (Pages 27 and 28 of Chief Justice Roberts’ dissent; emphasis added)

In his dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas laments:

Aside from undermining the political processes that protect our liberty, the majority’s decision threatens the religious liberty our Nation has long sought to protect

The majority…makes only a weak gesture toward religious liberty in a single paragraph, ante, at 27. And even that gesture indicates a misunderstanding of religious liberty in our Nation’s tradition. Religious liberty is about more than just the protection for “religious organizations and personsas they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths.” Ibid. Religious liberty is about freedom of action in matters of religion generally, and the scope of that liberty is directly correlated to the civil restraints placed upon religious practice.

… Had the majority allowed the definition of marriage to be left to the political process—as the Constitution requires—the People could have considered the religious liberty implications of deviating from the traditional definition as part of their deliberative process. Instead, the majority’s decision short-circuits that process, with potentially ruinous consequences for religious liberty. (Pages 14, 15 and 16 of Justice Thomas’ dissent; emphasis added)

Without specifically referencing religious rights, Justice Samuel Alito proclaims:

The system of federalism established by our Constitution provides a way for people with different beliefs to live together in a single nation. … If the issue of same-sex marriage had been left to the people of the States, it is…possible that some States would tie recognition to protection for conscience rights. The majority today makes that impossible. By imposing its own views on the entire country, the majority facilitates the marginalization of the many Americans who have traditional ideas.Today’s decision will also have a fundamental effect on this Court and its ability to uphold the rule of law. If a bare majority of Justices can invent a new right and impose that right on the rest of the country, the only real limit on what future majorities will be able to do is their own sense of what those with political power and cultural influence are willing to tolerate. (Page 7 of Justice Alito’s dissent; emphasis added)

And the sobering words of Justice Antonin Scalia underscore just how rapidly we may be coming full circle; approaching societal circumstances similar to those that awakened the Founding generation.

The opinion in these cases is the furthest extension in fact—and the furthest extension one can even imagine—of the Court’s claimed power to create “liberties” that the Constitution and its Amendments neglect to mention. This practice of constitutional revision by an unelected committee of nine, always accompanied (as it is today) by extravagant praise of liberty, robs the People of the most important liberty they asserted in the Declaration of Independence and won in the Revolution of 1776: the freedom to govern themselves.

(Page 2 of Justice Scalia’s dissent; emphasis added)

Speaking of awakening – and hopefully reawakening – as mentioned last week, we encourage you to consider adding an inspirational element to your holiday weekend by watching First Freedom: The Fight for Religious Liberty, a documentary that explores the history of religious freedom in the America. The program will air on Saturday, July 4, at 7:00 pm on BYUtv.

Robert P. George of Princeton and UVU President Matt Holland are among those interviewed for the documentary, which was produced in conjunction with PBS station WETA in Washington, D.C., and premiered on PBS in 2012. As PBS.org describes the show:

First Freedom: The Fight for Religious Liberty is the human story of how the Founding Fathers viewed faith, and how they radically broke with the Western tradition of religion-by-law to create a nation in which belief in God is a matter of choice.

Tune in on Saturday, the 4th, and watch First Freedom! BYUtv can be found on cable, satellite TV and on the Internet.