Monday, March 30, 2015

The first freedom

The Religious Freedom and Restoration Act of 1993 was introduced in the House by then Representative Chuck Schumer where it passed without dissent. It passed the Senate 97-3 and was signed by President Clinton. Democrats held majorities in both houses. Subsequently nineteen states passed similar legislation and ten others (including Wisconsin) had laws or state constitutional provisions that were interpreted by their courts as having essentially the same effect as the federal law.

Illinois passed its Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1998. President Obama, then a state legislator, voted for it.

So, why the controversy over Indiana's recent adoption of essentially the same language?

The free exercise of religion has been called the first freedom, that which originally sparked the development of the full range of the Bill of Rights. Our Founders cared a lot about religion. And one of the reasons they worked so hard to get the first amendment into the Bill of Rights at the head of the class is that they well understood what could happen to this country, how both religion and Government could be perverted if there were not some space created and some protection provided. They knew that religion helps to give our people the character without which a democracy cannot survive. They knew that there needed to be a space of freedom between Government and people of faith that otherwise Government might usurp.

They have seen now, all of us, that religion and religious institutions have brought forth faith and discipline, community and responsibility over two centuries for ourselves and enabled us to live together in ways that I believe would not have been possible. We are, after all, the oldest democracy now in history and probably the most truly multiethnic society on the face of the Earth. And I am convinced that neither one of those things would be true today had it not been for the importance of the first amendment and the fact that we have kept faith with it for 200 years.

What this law basically says is that the Government should be held to a very high level of proof before it interferes with someone’s free exercise of religion. This judgment is shared by the people of the United States as well as by the Congress. We believe strongly that we can never, we can never be too vigilant in this work. ....

.... There is a great debate now abroad in the land which finds itself injected into several political races about the extent to which people of faith can seek to do God’s will as political actors. I would like to come down on the side of encouraging everybody to act on what they believe is the right thing to do. ....

.... We are a people of faith. We have been so secure in that faith that we have enshrined in our Constitution protection for people who profess no faith. And good for us for doing so. That is what the first amendment is all about. But let us never believe that the freedom of religion imposes on any of us some responsibility to run from our convictions. ....
The freedoms protected by the First Amendment all protect actions that may inconvenience, offend, or even cause some interference with the freedom of, others. That is why the courts need criteria to decide how to balance competing rights.