Throughout history, devout religious believers have at times been forced from their homes by persecutors and made to seek refuge. Mormon pioneers, whose trek West is commemorated this month, are evidence that even in the United States, constitutional guarantees do not always protect the right to openly worship.
Now, despite generations during which that right — so grievously assaulted by Nazi forces during World War II — has been generally recognized in civilized countries, dark clouds seem to be gathering again.
A recent opinion poll by The Newseum Institute in Washington, D.C., found that one-third of Americans feel the Constitution's First Amendment goes too far in granting freedoms, including the freedom of religion. This alarming figure represents a jump from 13 percent who held that view only last year.
It mirrors recent trends in official institutions, both in the United States and Europe.
For example, chaplains in the U.S. military gathered for a three-day conference in June and expressed a growing feeling of being muzzled. Some have even been disciplined for saying prayers that end "in Jesus' name."
Others in the military face discipline for being outwardly, or even indirectly, religious. An Army master sergeant may face discipline just for serving Chick-fil-A sandwiches at a promotion party, simply because of the religious convictions of the owner of that fast-food chain.
The Religion Today website notes that an Idaho Air Force base removed a painting called "Blessed are the Peacemakers" because of its Biblical reference.
An Army Reserve training brief identifies evangelical Christians and Roman Catholics as extremists.
In the European Union, the final court of appeal recently rejected three religious freedom cases from the United Kingdom, essentially dismissing rights of conscience in cases where people are forced to uphold gay rights or work on Sundays.
In a piece published on Mercatornet.com, senior research fellow Roger Trigg wrote that, "Religion is too often seen in Europe as divisive and threatening, and associated with bigotry and dogmatism rather than reason. The view seems to be that we need freedom from religion, not for it."
People are allowed to worship as they please, if they must, but religious rights are not elevated above any other in what is becoming a growing body of human rights.
"All too often religion is thought of as opposed to reason," Trigg wrote. "An immediate corollary of this view is that it cannot contribute to public, rational debate. It may be tolerated as the private pursuit of those who choose it, but public policy should not take account of it, let alone be grounded on any religious view."
No doubt the violent acts of a few zealots and terrorists claiming to be acting in the name of God have contributed to this general perception, but it is a view that ignores religion's indispensable role in establishing the basis for the rights and freedoms so many take for granted today. Without religion in the public square, rights degenerate quickly into opinions open for debate and restriction.
And as history has shown, efforts to suppress religious freedoms lead to the suppression of other rights and ultimately result in widespread misery.
Of all nations on Earth, the United States still maintains a strong, although eroding, regard for religious freedom. Congress last year included an amendment in a defense spending bill clearly noting that service personnel cannot be disciplined for their beliefs. However, President Barack Obama called the amendment unnecessary and his administration so far has not implemented rules to enforce the protections.
The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently upheld a religion's right to organize its affairs and set the rules for its members. The administration, however, has imposed requirements as part of the Affordable Care Act that would take away rights of conscience in regard to certain medical procedures religious employers would have to offer employees as part of their health coverage.
Unlike the pioneers of nearly two centuries ago, there is no place left for believers to flee. These are battles that must be fought, but they can be won only if the historical basis for religious freedom is taught and understood widely. It is the first freedom guaranteed in the First Amendment to the Constitution, and that was not by coincidence.
In a letter explaining this, James Madison wrote, "We are teaching the world the great truth that Govts. do better without Kings & Nobles than with them. The merit will be doubled by the other lesson that Religion flourishes in greater purity, without than with the aid of Gov."
This is a lesson that must be passed down, not learned anew the hard way.
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