“To the greatest extent practicable and permitted by law, religious observance and practice should be reasonably accommodated in all government activity, including employment, contracting, and programming.”
Last week’s guidance memo from the U.S. attorney general — directing government officials to stop finding ways to make it more difficult for people of faith to live out their beliefs — is as welcome as it should be unnecessary.
To those who wrote our Declaration of Independence and Constitution, the need to let people serve the exigencies of their faith was as plainly “self-evident” as the birthright of all men to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” If freedom was the cornerstone of the American soul, religious freedom was the quarry that stone was carved from.
This is our national DNA — our political, cultural and spiritual identity as Americans.
That identity has been in crisis for a while now. In the rush to embrace (and be embraced by) those pressing various political, social and cultural agendas, government officials at every level have veered a long way off the course set by the Founders. Last week’s memo was a pretty big, neon-lit sign from the current administration, directing, “This way back to the main road.”
“Religious liberty is not merely a right to personal religious beliefs or even to worship in a sacred place,” the memo reads — directly contradicting efforts by the previous administration to substitute “freedom of worship” for “freedom of religion.” That substitution was a way of constraining religious expression to the four walls of a church building and a way of saying, “You can be whatever faith you are, you can do whatever it is you people do. Just stay inside. Keep it out of the culture, out of the public square. We don’t want to have to see it or hear it or know it’s around.”
This new memo rightly torpedoes that sophistry, affirming what every person of faith knows — that holding that faith “also encompasses religious observance and practice.” If religious faith is to have any meaning, those who hold it dear can’t move through the world like secret agents — or cowering fugitives — reserving their beliefs for nondescript hideaways and some private corner of their minds. To have a perspective on life has to mean living according to that perspective.
The government can’t order vegetarians to eat meat. It can’t order Yankee fans to cheer for the Red Sox. And it shouldn’t be able to order Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christians or anyone else to submerge their faith, or embrace ideas they don’t agree with.
A government that would do that hasn’t the faintest grasp of what freedom of speech or religion is about. Which is why last week’s memo affirming the First Amendment, also voices a peculiarly American kind of common sense: “Except in the narrowest circumstances, no one should be forced to choose between living out his or her faith and complying with the law.”
“Americans do not give up their freedom of religion by participating in the marketplace, partaking of the public square, or interacting with government,” the memo adds. “Free exercise of religion includes the right to act or abstain from action in accordance with one’s religious beliefs.”
Not long ago, that idea was as much a given in America as sunshine in an Arizona summer. Now we’ve come to the point where our attorney general has to remind us — like a dad saying, “Don’t hit your sister.”
Still, the sister is thoroughly glad to hear dad say it, as the Little Sisters of the Poor were no doubt glad to hear our AG’s admonition, as well as last week’s new directive from the Department of Health and Human Services. That memo expanded protections in the Obama-era abortion-pill mandate for organizations with pro-life religious or moral convictions.
The Obamacare mandate compelled many employers, regardless of those convictions, to provide abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization and contraception or face heavy penalties by the Internal Revenue Service and other federal agencies. It was all of a piece with other efforts by the last administration to shame, silence and punish the “bitter clingers” holding fast to their faith.
That attitude has fostered serious problems for families like the Vander Boons in Michigan, who have been threatened with the effective closure of their family-run business just for expressing a religious point of view on marriage that differed from that of the federal government.
Those same problems have plagued Christian artists and business owners — the florists, photographers and wedding cake designers being hounded and penalized for grounding their kindness and generosity to those whose views they disagree with in business policies inseparable from their sincere faith.
On Dec. 5, the U.S. Supreme Court — which ruled 7-2 last spring in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer that singling out religious Americans for unequal treatment by the government “is odious to our Constitution and cannot stand” — will be hearing the case of wedding cake designer Jack Phillips.
Here’s hoping the constitutional wisdom of the Trinity decision — and the constitutional common sense of this most recent attorney general memo — will be echoed in justice for Mr. Phillips. And for other artists, business owners and people of faith all over America.
• Michael Farris is president and CEO of Alliance Defending Freedom, and was an original draftsman of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
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