Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
The words really aren’t that difficult. But understanding what they mean has proven most profoundly challenging for many Americans, particularly those for whom “religion” (more specifically, Christianity) is preposterous, silly, or dangerous. Folks like the ACLU.
Decades of befuddling and often contradictory Supreme Court precedent has added to the confusion. Unfortunately, we’ve reached a point in our culture where through gradual revision by SCOTUS, the “establishment clause” has become the 900 lb. gorilla of the First Amendment.
Debates over the years at the Virginia General Assembly regarding religious liberty, and the veto of legislation in recent days that would have protected the “free exercise” rights of public school students and military chaplains, reveals the insidious philosophy behind the attacks on the “free exercise clause.”
Essentially, what I’ve noticed in the reasoning presented by opponents to religious expression is an idea that should send shivers down the spine of anyone who relishes freedom, religious or otherwise. Here it is:
By allowing the free exercise of religion, government is in fact endorsing religion. Thus, by allowing this freedom, government is establishing it.
This philosophy, of course, turns the First Amendment on its head, and subjects the free exercise clause to the establishment clause – something never considered by the Founders.
Opponents to religious expression couch this argument in phrases like “government speech,” a concept so foreign to American constitutional theory it’s frightening. But we now have circumstances where speech is considered to be “owned” by the government. For example, when a student in a public school is speaking at a school event, now that speech is considered “government speech,” and since the government can’t “endorse” a religion, free exercise (or free expression) is thwarted.
Free exercise should never have been subjected to the establishment clause. Free exercise is freedom of conscience; it comes from God, not from the state. But by subjecting our freedom to exercise our faith in the public square to the establishment clause, the political left has successfully made religious liberty a right granted by the state, not by God.
So now, a chaplain can’t be a chaplain. A student’s speech is owned by the state. And Virginia joins the growing list of states where the government is the grantor, not protector, of freedom.