US Politics

A Problematic Religious Freedom Day

Image: Politicus USA

Freedom of religion has had roots in our history long before it was guaranteed by the constitution. We grow up with stories of William Penn dedicating Pennsylvania to people of all religions. Americans who opened their hearts and their land to welcome people of different faiths. It is utterly ingrained in our patriotic, opportunistic culture, the freedom to speak, write, express, and pray. Which may be why you either think this holiday is overkill, or you plain haven’t heard of it. To most,  it goes down as a holiday known only on the day of, fading in and out of fickle Twitter accounts like Squirrel Appreciation Day, Jan. 21National Organ Donor Day, Feb. 14, and… Panic Day, March 9. In fact, all Wikipedia has on religious freedom day is a meager 3 sentences:

National Religious Freedom Day commemorates the Virginia General Assembly‘s adoption of Thomas Jefferson‘s landmark Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom on January 16, 1786. That statute became the basis for the establishment clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and led to the freedom of religion for all Americans. Religious Freedom Day is officially proclaimed on January 16 each year by an annual statement by the President of the United States.

You probably care about its principles, but I’m not going to pretend you care about the holiday itself, and for years that meant that we’ve been so attuned to the normalcy of religious freedom, that we haven’t had to worry about protecting it. We should hope to see it next year and not bat an eyelash as it passes over us. We shouldn’t have to worry about its sanctity today, but the Trump administration’s press release has more than a few concerned.

It starts off as many Presidential Declarations have, exulting religious freedom’s virtues and vowing to protect it. It ends nicely as well,

The free exercise of religion is a source of personal and national stability, and its preservation is essential to protecting human dignity.  Religious diversity strengthens our communities and promotes tolerance, respect, understanding, and equality.  Faith breathes life and hope into our world.  We must diligently guard, preserve, and cherish this unalienable right.

What’s the problem? Many point to this quote from the president:

Our Constitution and laws guarantee Americans the right not just to believe as they see fit, but to freely exercise their religion.  Unfortunately, not all have recognized the importance of religious freedom, whether by threatening tax consequences for particular forms of religious speech or forcing people to comply with laws that violate their core religious beliefs without sufficient justification. These incursions, little by little, can destroy the fundamental freedom underlying our democracy.  Therefore, soon after taking office, I addressed these issues in an Executive Order that helps ensure Americans are able to follow their consciences without undue Government interference and the Department of Justice has issued guidance to Federal agencies regarding their compliance with laws that protect religious freedom.  No American—whether a nun, nurse, baker, or business owner—should be forced to choose between the tenets of faith or adherence to the law.

In the same speech proclaiming the ethics of respecting others, he subtly references the Masterpiece Cakeshop case. The case is supported by the Trump administration and a group called Alliance Defending Freedom whom the Southern Poverty Law Center deems a hate group. The story can be summed up as a baker unwilling to create a cake for a gay couple, citing his religious beliefs as the reason why. It was brought up in the supreme court to debate a business’s right to pick and choose customers. This right isn’t immoral in itself, it’s actually exceptionally important. Afterall, who would disagree with a business owner’s decision to kick out an angry, unreasonable customer who generally causes mayhem? Whereas the customer is causing harm to the owner, in circumstances such as Newman vs. Piggie Park enterprises, it’s the other way around. In the 1960’s, a barbecue owner refused service to a man established solely on the fact he was African American. He argued it was because of his religious values too. The lawsuit was a landmark piece of litigation that established that civil rights are more important than religious views.

I want to point out something: if Trump and his followers get his way in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, it could harm the people he’s trying to protect. If he believes that business owners should be allowed to discriminate based on religious beliefs, then he may unknowingly believe that the Christian bake shop proprietor can discriminate against someone of a different faith. The Buddhist refuses the Muslim, the Catholic refuses the Shintoist, and on and on and on. If he truly wants to protect “The right not just to believe as they see fit, but to freely exercise their religion,” He should understand the full repercussions of his statement.

With that, let’s hope for a more boring Religous Freedom day next year—a day that actually represents religious freedom.

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