The Fate Of Religious Freedom
How much do you value your religious freedom?
Your right to worship could be put in jeopardy as Congress and the Supreme Court define the government’s power to limit our right to worship as we see fit.
Christians have a vital stake in this debate, because if religious freedom can be limited to what’s convenient for government, religious freedom becomes a sham.
Historically, the courts have interpreted the First Amendment to require the government to provide a “compelling governmental interest” before it could interfere with the people’s religious freedom. Furthermore, government was required to choose the least restrictive means to further its purposes.
BOTH THE LEFT AND THE RIGHT REACTED WITH ALARM.
Then, in 1990, the Supreme Court turned religious freedom on its head. In a terrible case called Employment Division v. Smith, the Court ruled that laws that serve some rational government purpose are constitutional, even if these laws infringe on religious freedom. Of course, the definition of “rational government purpose” is practically anything that isn’t motivated by fear or bigotry. The message of Smith was believe whatever you want, but the government will decide if you can act on those beliefs.
The reaction to Smith was alarm on both the Left and the Right. An unlikely coalition of bedfellows including the ACLU, People for the American Way, and the National Association of Evangelicals sponsored the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). These groups share the conviction that religious freedom is much too important to be limited by mere “rational” purposes. That is, the first liberty in the Bill of Rights demands protection unless there is a compelling reason to override it.
Opponents to RFRA—including many government officials—fought hard against the legislation. They complained it would be too difficult to accommodate religious freedom the way RFRA demanded. For example, Sen. Harry Reid (Nev.) attempted to tack an amendment onto RFRA, exempting prison inmates from the bill’s protections. Fortunately, Prison Fellowship’s friends in the Senate defeated the Reid amendment, and RFRA was overwhelmingly passed and signed into law by President Clinton.
But now there are two new threats. The Supreme Court will hear a case challenging RFRA’s constitutionality. And in the Senate, Sen. Reid has revived his effort to exclude prisoners from RFRA’s provisions.
If the Court overturns RFRA, everybody’s religious freedom will be severely curtailed. If prisoners are exempted from RFRA, a dangerous precedent will have been set. Once government is granted the power to pick and choose whose religious freedom it will honor, the freedom of all people is threatened. We’d better be praying that the Supreme Court will not set aside Congress’s will to protect religious freedom.
German pastor Martin Niemoller, who was imprisoned by the Nazis, poignantly expressed the importance of safeguarding everyone’s freedom. In Germany, he wrote, the Nazis came first for the Communists, but he didn’t speak up, because he wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and he didn’t speak up because he wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists and Catholics but because he was neither of these, Niemoller still did not speak out.
“Eventually,” Niemoller writes, “they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.”