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Editorial: Good News and Bad News On Religious Freedom in the United States

By Keith A. Fournier
July 26th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

The election of Robert George as Chair of this international commission is good news. Hopefully, the commission will not only examine violations of religious freedom in other nations, but also violations in the United States of America.  However, the woeful lack of knowledge concerning the First Amendment revealed in this recent survey is bad news. We have a lot of work to do.

WASHINGTON, DC (Catholic Online) - There is good news and bad news concerning religious freedom in the United States of America. First - the good news. The Press release can be read in full here. One of the truly good guys of our age, Princeton Professor, First Amendment scholar and faithful Catholic Robert "Robby" George has been elected the Chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.

With both a law degree and a Doctorate in Philosophy, this Princeton Professor and faithful Catholic has been busily raising the water level of political discourse in the nation. His career has been committed to reaffirming the universal principles which formed the foundation for the American experiment. They are at increasing risk as we veer away from our founding principles.

Robby George knows this all too well and is working very hard to defend the first freedom. His efforts to develop a language with which to reassert the existence of the Natural Law in order to prevent the collapse of western civilization is respected even by those who, like me, hold to a different approach to the Natural Law.

However, there is also bad news.

The First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University and the Newseum released its survey on the state of the First Amendment last week.  The ignorance of the American public concerning the fundamental rights protected under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution is depressing and dangerous.

From 1991 through 1997, I served as the Executive Director of the American Center for Law and Justice, a public interest law firm engaged in religious freedom and pro-life work. During that time I wrote a small booklet entitled "Religious Cleansing in the American Republic". The booklet was distributed to half a million people. But it was not without its critics.

I was accused by some of overstating the problem. I did not. The growing hostility toward the symbols of our religious heritage, the mocking of the values informed by religious faith and the  overt and open hostility toward people of faith and religious institutions is proof. It signals a clear and present danger.

Religious freedom has been called the first freedom in the American experiment for good reason. It ensures that the leavening role of revealed truth helps us to form our conscience and shape the choices we make as individuals, families and as a society.

Religious faith, religious institutions and religious speech are protected by the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights of the Constitution for good reason. The Birth Certificate of our Nation, the Declaration of Independence, affirmed the existence of inalienable rights and self evident truths. Those Rights of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of happiness are endowed by our Creator and not conferred by a Federal Government.

Increasingly, the Federal Government fails to recognize that the Right to Religious Freedom is a fundamental human right. The First Amendment prohibition against the establishment of a National Religion was never meant to be used to justify governmental hostility toward religious faith, religious persons or religious institutions.

It was intended to protect against the establishment of a National Church and a forced adherence to its doctrine by all citizens. It was more aptly understood as an Anti-Establishment Clause. It should always be interpreted in light of the Free Exercise and free Speech clauses of that same First Amendment. Religious freedom is a fundamental human right which must be secured and protected by the positive law.

Religious faith, religious persons and religious institutions should be encouraged and accommodated by the federal and/or state government, not treated with hostility. Rightly understood and applied, religious freedom means a freedom for religious expression; not a removal of such expression. Religious faith and the values informed by faith serve and promote the common good.

The Right to Religious Freedom protects people of all faiths in their right to participate in the public square and to be a part of the daily social interactions that constitute the very tapestry of our social life. Religious faith is a human and social good.  The values informed by faith have provided a firm foundation for our understanding of freedom and belief in unalienable rights, endowed by a Creator not conferred by any government.

At the beginning of the Third Christian Millennium we must defend the first freedom, religious freedom. As a Nation, we must reaffirm our support for religious freedom; rightly understood and applied, as a freedom for religious expression not a freedom from such expression.

Hostility toward the role of faith in our life together as a free people and efforts to censor the vital role it has played in our history and founding, is corrosive to freedom. 

Sadly, an incorrect interpretation of the Establishment Clause has arisen in the American polity which promotes a notion of a Church/State separation that is hostile to religious institutions, discriminates against people of faith and seeks to censor religious speech and expression in the public square.

The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment was intended to protect religious institutions and people of faith in their vital role in speaking and acting in an authentically pluralistic society so as to offer their contribution to the overall common good. The Free Exercise Clause has been turned on its head - and is now used all too often to silence the Church and the religious speaker and actor.

Finally, the Free Speech clause has been subverted. When the message and the messenger being examined under its increasingly hostile scrutiny is determined by the State to be speaking a religious or moral message, its important protections no longer apply.

The appointment of Robert George to this international commission is good news. Hopefully, the commission will not only examine violations of religious freedom in other nations, but also violations in the United States of America. 

However, the woeful lack of knowledge concerning the First Amendment revealed in this survey is bad news. We have a lot of work to do. We need the leadership of people like Robert George to help.

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