President Obama marked Religious Freedom Day earlier this month by framing religious liberty as “the freedom to worship as we choose.” If the president had not been restricting and attacking religious freedom so egregiously, he might merit a pass for using “freedom to worship” as poor shorthand for religious liberty.
The First Amendment of our Constitution actually reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The constitutionally guaranteed free exercise of religion in America extends well beyond the freedom to worship. It includes the freedom to live out our conscientiously held beliefs.
Worship at its core is essentially a private and personal process, a communion between God and an individual. No government could restrict such worship, any more than it could monitor and censor every citizen’s thoughts and prayers. Even forbidding individuals to worship together in public, which coercive communist governments like China’s have done, cannot actually prevent individuals from worshiping God in private. So a law that merely protected the freedom to worship would hardly be worth heralding in a presidential proclamation.
The free exercise of religion under the American Constitution, by contrast, includes the freedom to openly express, follow and live out our faith — not just in private but also in the public square — without government coercion, censorship or any other form of restriction.
The concept of religious liberty held by the Constitution’s framers included not merely the freedom to worship, but also the free exercise of conscience — carrying out one’s moral beliefs with conviction and action.
As Thomas Jefferson asserted, “* ur rules can have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God.”
James Madison expressed this understanding in his original amendment to the Constitution: “The civil rights of none, shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext infringed.”
To be fair, Mr. Obama’s statement eventually included a more expansive acknowledgement of religious freedom: “Because of the protections guaranteed by our Constitution, each of us has the right to practice our faith openly and as we choose.”
Yet the record will show that the president’s gilded rhetoric belies tarnished policies. The prioritization of the president’s first statement — that religious freedom means simply freedom to worship — in fact parallels his policies. Those policies often violate not only the general principles of the First Amendment, but also the more specific Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which provides that “Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” and must take “the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”
The Obama administration has taken several actions to restrict or outright violate religious liberty. They have gutted the only federal conscience regulation protecting the conscience rights of American health care professionals.
Officials issued a coercive contraception and sterilization mandate that imposes the president’s abortion ideology on all employers, exempting virtually only places of worship. The thousands of faith-based charities that actually exercise their faith and conscience beyond the four walls of their churches now face millions of dollars in fines by the Obama administration.
The administration has argued before the Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC against a religious institution in an attempt to restrict faith-based organizations’ hiring rights. In a unanimous decision, even Mr. Obama’s own appointees to the court rejected the administration’s radical arguments to restrict religious liberty.
The Obama administration failed for months to aggressively advocate on behalf of Pastor Saeed Abedini, an American citizen imprisoned, tortured and now on trial, facing possible execution by the Iranian government, for simply living out and speaking about his Christian faith.
The first American Congress enshrined religious liberty pre-eminently in the Bill of Rights. Many of those leaders and their fellow patriots who ratified the First Amendment had risked everything they owned and their very lives to win those freedoms. They also recognized that threatening one group’s freedoms, by either restricting or establishing a faith, threatens the freedoms of everyone.
Unless we act swiftly to guard against current assaults on religious liberty — by reversing the administration’s coercive policies through the courts, by passing conscience-protecting laws in Congress and by re-educating the culture on religious liberty — our First Amendment freedoms will become an empty proclamation.
Jonathan Imbody is vice president for government relations at the Christian Medical Association.