In this escalating fight for individual rights, each side claims it is a battle for the very soul of our nation. Yet, civility has been thrown out the window as our society struggles to navigate this complex interplay between First Amendment rights, changing societal norms, and political polarization. One side interprets truth and morality as beholden to the bearer. The other, appalled by the erosion of morality, are willing to cross a line where the “ends justify the means.”
Undeniably, the American landscape of religious freedom is challenging today. The First Amendment, promising the free exercise of religion, remains in the spotlight amidst the debates and rulings over the definition of religious freedom and how it interplays with societal evolution. The First Amendment is rooted in core principles essential in preserving individual freedoms and maintaining a healthy, functioning democracy.
The First Amendment guarantees the right to practice one’s faith without government interference. This ‘free exercise’ clause has been subject to various interpretations by the Supreme Court, shaping how it is applied in our contemporary society. With changing societal norms, the cracks in shared values of the past have deepened into a chasm of irreconcilable beliefs, creating divisions that challenge our ability to maintain unity. The most prominent and ongoing debate between LGBTQ+ rights and religious freedom remains at the forefront.
Business owners, citing their religious beliefs, have refused service to LGBTQ+ individuals. This ignited a national debate on where to draw the line between individual religious liberty and the societal commitment to equality. In the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, the Court ruled the bakery did not have to make wedding cakes for same-sex couples. However, it did not address the broader constitutional questions of freedom of religion and anti-discrimination.
The recent Supreme Court ruling favoring a Colorado graphic designer who refused to create same-sex wedding websites affirmed the right to live one’s faith publicly. Justice Neil Gorsuch, in his opinion, wrote, “In this case, Colorado seeks to force an individual to speak in ways that align with its views but defy her conscience about a matter of major significance.” No government has the right to suppress the beliefs of another, even when societal norms change. The challenge ahead is to ensure such rulings do not provide a license for discrimination.
These legal battles and social tensions are not limited to LGBTQ+ rights. The fight for religious exemptions to vaccination mandates ratcheted up the divide when government restrictions during the Covid pandemic where mandated. Two Pastors made headlines when they were arrested for defying state orders against large gatherings. Objections to vaccination mandates continue to test the boundaries of religious freedom. The questions around the balance between individual religious rights and the broader societal interest in public health or equal rights are becoming more common, yet more divisive.
These issues have become political fodder where social grace and civil discourse are not required. In our diverse and complex sociopolitical landscape, religious freedom remains a cornerstone. Just one month before the 2020 Presidential election, a Pew research poll reported that 8 in 10 registered voters identified the issue they had with the other side was about core American values. Sadly, these debates have become less about the legal principles at play and more about changing societal values, the larger cultural battles, and political point-scoring. The end result of political polarization is that the very concept of religious freedom will be reduced to a mere instrument for political gains.
In 1858, then Illinois Senate-candidate Lincoln stood before the Illinois Republican State Convention to address the issue of slavery. Lincoln said, “A house divided cannot stand. Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only, not ceased, but has constantly augmented”.
President Lincoln understood our American Republic was founded on a set of beliefs that all people have fundamental rights which include liberty, freedom of religion, speech, assembly, and due process of law. With these guarantees, come responsibility and restraint. Without respect in our discourse, we only deepen the divide and rip away what remains of a civil society.
In his opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote, “But tolerance, not coercion, is our Nation’s answer. The First Amendment envisions the United States as a rich and complex place where all persons are free to think and speak as they wish, not as the government demands.” As these dynamics continue to play out across our diverse landscape, a nation divided cannot stand. Preserving individual freedoms and maintaining a healthy, functioning democracy are necessary to uphold the principles and values that made this nation great.