Issues surrounding the First Amendment are becoming dangerously politicized. This needs to change.
The protections associated with freedom of speech, press and religious liberty are lodestar guarantors of sovereignty.
They protect minority perspectives, because in a democratic republic the majority usually rules and — without robust safeguards — can be inclined to run roughshod over unpopular perspectives. The Founders wisely put in place protections against majority excess. One never knows, after all, when they will end up in the minority.
From hostility toward religious freedom and the Fourth Estate to a growing unease with controversial speech, there is a sense among some that speech or religious belief is permissible as long as it aligns with one’s perspective. Students and others now protest — sometimes violently — when a controversial conservative speaker shows up on a college campus. Others decry players peacefully kneeling on NFL sidelines.
Americans seem increasingly quick to dismiss or silence those with differing, often minority-held, perspectives. Permitting a diverse religious and political dialogue to flourish, however, strengthens a culture that upholds laws and guarantees that minority perspectives, including religious objectors and protesters, can be a part of the conversation without fear of government reprisal. After all, it was partially England’s inability to properly assimilate dissent that turned a colonial protest into a revolution. The issue with politicizing fundamental rights is how it takes us further way from providing the fairness for all that the Bill of Rights is uniquely fashioned to protect.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump's rhetoric has sometimes threatened the status of a vibrant free press. Recently, for example, after disagreeing with a report from the network NBC, he tweeted “With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!” And yet, despite tweets against the fourth estate, the administration's recent decision to provide some relief to religious objectors to Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate deserves praise by those who value First Amendment freedoms, especially the freedom of religion.
Last week, The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services changed its rules for how it will implement the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate. In addition to churches, the new rules now exempt religiously based nonprofit employers — including groups such as the Little Sisters of the Poor — from complying with aspects of the Obamacare contraceptive mandate. Little Sisters of the Poor, for example, said that fulfilling the mandate violated their religious views, which are rooted in Catholic teachings about protecting unborn life.
With the new rules, the Trump administration has struck the “common-sense balance that religious organizations have sought for the past six years,” according to Hannah C. Smith, a senior counsel at the organization Becket — Religious Liberty for All.
Faith-based groups receive exemptions so they’re not pushed to violate their sincerely held beliefs, but the contraceptive mandate still remains in place as part of the Affordable Care Act. This aligns with the spirit of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which states, in general “government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion." Currently, there is a case before the Supreme Court that deals with a religious baker’s objection to creating a cake for a wedding that violates his sincerely held religious beliefs. Lower courts have ruled that the baker’s actions ran afoul of anti-discrimination ordinances that protect the LGBT community.
Protecting rights and speech can be achieved by adopting a vision of true fairness. First Amendment protections and anti-discrimination laws must not become partisan fodder. People of diverse political persuasion can find common ground that allows all to thrive in an environment of mutual respect. This is easier when such issues do not become part of heated political rhetoric. The new HHS rules concerning the Obamacare contraceptive mandate are a fine example of striking the right kind of balance.