Dwight G. Duncan: Religious freedom — use it or you might lose it

by Dwight G. Duncan

Published: Sunday, July 1 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Activists protest an upcoming federal mandate that most institutions and businesses provide insurance plans that cover artificial birth control.

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Recalling the history of Americans' and their British ancestors' dedication to religious freedom offers lessons for our own struggles that lie ahead.

Do we assume America is a free country? Do we assume religious freedom is guaranteed in America? Most of us learned this in school and have taken it for granted ever since. In other countries people might have to worry about whether and how they can practice their religion. Not here. This is America, after all.

Why do we think this way? In part because our law justifies it.

The founders and framers of our system of government met in Philadelphia in 1787 to draft the Constitution, to delineate and circumscribe the powers of government. They then submitted the Constitution to the people to ratify. But many people all over the country worried that the document they came up with didn't do enough to protect our rights and liberties. And so one of the first things the First Congress did was to propose a Bill of Rights, which became the first 10 amendments to the Constitution.

Not by accident did the First Amendment begin with religious freedom, protecting it from infringement in two ways: first, by prohibiting an official, governmentally sponsored religion ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion") and second, by protecting the people in their free exercise of religion ("or prohibiting the free exercise thereof").

What do these clauses mean? They don't mean that Americans' right to religious freedom is a right to believe whatever we want to believe. Even North Koreans have that right, because as a practical matter no one can force someone to believe or not to believe something. The free exercise of religion means the ability to act on those beliefs. To practice our religion in private or in public. To proclaim our religion to others, if we wish. To spend our money in furtherance of our own religion, and not in furtherance of anyone else's. To promote what we think is moral, and not to promote anything we think is immoral. These are all necessary consequences of the idea of religious freedom.

But law without practice is a dead letter. Our faith in our American freedoms is also tied to our history.

The first English-speaking Catholics to come to these shores, led by Cecil Calvert (Lord Baltimore) in 1634, practiced religious toleration, a remarkable policy for its day. The general idea then in vogue was to create a homogeneous community where everyone was on the same page about everything. Catholic countries were supposed to be Catholic. Protestant countries (and colonies) were supposed to be Protestant.

Lord Baltimore bucked the trend. In 1649, the Maryland General Assembly enacted an Act of Religious Toleration, which promised to every self-described Christian that he or she should not "be troubled, molested or discountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion nor in the free exercise thereof ... nor any way compelled to the belief or exercise of any other religion against his or her consent."

Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island who arrived at Puritan Boston in 1631, would go even further. Driven from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for his religious dissent, his colony would allow freedom of religion to everyone: Protestants, Quakers, Catholics, Jews, and Muslims. In 1658, the Rhode Island General Assembly reminded the other colonies in New England that "freedom of different consciences, to be protected from enforcements, was the principal ground of our Charter ... which freedom we still prize as the greatest happiness that men can possess in this world."

Abraham Lincoln had occasion to join his voice to the cause of religious freedom in the 1840s, a time when nativism was exhibiting its persistent anti-Catholic strain: "The guarantee of the rights of conscience, as found in our Constitution, is most sacred and inviolable, and one that belongs no less to the Catholic, than to the Protestant, and ... all attempts to abridge or interfere with these rights, either of Catholic or Protestant, directly or indirectly, have our decided disapprobation, and shall ever have our most effective opposition."

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