To understand the former, one need only contemplate the contradiction in values, morals and logic contained in this scenario: A demand for equality leads to legal protection of an individual’s right to their core belief and expression regarding sexuality, but leads to legal prosecution of another individual for exercising their right to their core belief and expression regarding God. That is, in fact, a form of intolerance and inequality masquerading as equality.
To understand the latter, one need only ponder the historical fact that religion was a driving force behind the abolition of the English slave trade, the emancipation of American slaves, and the American civil rights movement. Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. did not lead America’s civil rights movement in spite of his religious identity, but because of it.
Very early on in America’s history, Alexis de Tocqueville noted: “Religion, which, among Americans, never mixes directly in the government of society, should therefore be considered as the first of their political institutions; for if it does not give them a taste for freedom, it singularly facilitates their use of it.” Part of what Tocqueville meant is that religion shapes the experience of citizenship. It is easy to see then, why the freedom to practice religion is critical to the nation’s order and character.
The interconnectedness of religion, equality and freedom is uniquely American. Other nations have viewed religious freedom in different ways. The French Revolution’s 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man had a “religious freedom” provision, which subordinated the right to the perceived interests of the state: “No one shall be disquieted on account of his opinions, including his religious views, provided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law.” This approach allowed for unfettered freedom to believe, but severely constricted the ability to act on or express that belief.
Even the charter of the Soviet Union guaranteed “freedom of religious worship,” which looked nothing like what Americans would recognize as freedom. The governing principle of Communist Russia was that everyone was free to believe what they would like, but with the caveat that expressing those beliefs in contradiction to the laws and will of the state would be severely punished. In practice, even the guarantee of freedom of belief was never honored.
Contrast the foreign ideas of freedom of religious views and religious worship to the American principle of religious freedom. Religious freedom is core to the way Americans constitute ourselves as a people. The pursuit of religious liberty motivated the establishment of America’s second English colony in 1620 in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Religious freedom also holds a unique place in our constitutional order: It is literally the first freedom protected in the Bill of Rights.
Religious freedom in the Constitution is found in two places. The First Amendment provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” There is also a provision in the text of the original Constitution, less remarked upon, but no less important. Article VI says that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
Taken together, these provisions, and similar ones in the constitutions of each state, show that the American ideal is one of robust protection for religious belief, worship and expression in the public square. These protections include three connected principles:
- All human beings should be free in their religious beliefs and practices without suffering persecution or official discrimination, except in the rare instances where a religious practice compromises a compelling governmental interest (e.g., protecting innocent life).
- Religious organizations must be free to determine doctrines and practices, including standards for membership, and to carry out their activities without government interference.
- No one should be forced by the government to affirm or support beliefs to which they do not freely ascribe.
Despite the robustness of the American principle of religious freedom contained in the Constitution, limited conceptions of religious freedom have their advocates in the modern United States. There has been a rhetorical shift among some to speak of a “freedom of worship.” This means that churches and individuals can believe and teach what they like, and perhaps even select their own clergy and perform their own ceremonies, but this “freedom” essentially ends outside the door of the meetinghouse, mosque, cathedral or synagogue.
For instance, a prominent government official recently argued that religious freedom was merely a “code word” for darker motives, such as hate for a particular group of people – the implicit suggestion being that the government can restrict the freedom of people of faith if their beliefs conflict with the official government-endorsed ideology: discriminating against religious people because of their beliefs, in the name of anti-discrimination.
A related notion is that other protections, like freedom of speech, are adequate to protect religious people. Thus, a recent Supreme Court decision dismissed concerns about religious organizations and individuals being asked to facilitate conduct at odds with their beliefs by saying that they still have the ability to verbally express their teachings. But the freedom to state one’s core beliefs becomes largely meaningless without its intended companion: freedom to live according to those core beliefs.
A free society prioritizes religious freedom. It recognizes what Tocqueville observed, that religious devotion fosters accountability that, in turn, secures the qualities in citizens that allows for a broadly tolerant and pluralistic community that is both safe and open. It also recognizes America’s historical reality: that religion is tied to equality, and without religious freedom equality would not exist in its current form in America.
With very rare exceptions – the damaging effects of which can be alleviated by existing constitutional principles – religion inculcates in its adherents a spirit of civility and public-spiritedness that allows a free society to flourish. It motivates individuals to come together to care for those who are less fortunate and to protect those otherwise excluded from the bounties of a prosperous nation.
Religious freedom is a foundation of a decent, equal and free society.
 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America 280 (translated by Harvey C. Mansfield & Delba Winthrop, 2000).