freedom of conscience

Does Religious Freedom Matter Anymore?

On this date in 1786, the Virginia General Assembly enacted one of the most important initiatives in our nation's history — the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom. Today, Governor Bob McDonnell issued a proclamation celebrating the Statute and Senator Bill Stanley (R-20, Moneta) and Delegate Chris Peace (R-97, Hanover) gave speeches in their respective chambers to bring attention to this day. This amendment to our state constitution was the foundation for our First Freedom as defined in the U.S. Constitution a few years later. Drafted by Thomas Jefferson — it is one of the three accomplishments for which he wanted to be remembered and engraved on his tombstone; the others being author of the Declaration of Independence and founder of the University of Virginia — the Statute recognizes that our right to exercise our faith

. . . can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and, therefore, all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.

It adds:

No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain their opinions in matters of religion, and the same shall in nowise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

As attacks on the religious liberty of Americans continue to grow, it is important to remember the real meaning of the term and take the opportunity to educate our friends and neighbors who may be buying into some of the secular left’s notion of "separation of church and state." For example, we often call our First Freedom a "constitutional right to religious freedom," but the reality is that this freedom comes from God and is simply to be protected by the constitution; it doesn't come from our constitution.

It is important to note that we have the freedom to be involved in "civil capacities" and express our "opinions in matters of religion" in these capacities. This is particularly important to remember as the radical secular left in Virginia has attacked us for our support of pro-life and pro-family legislation as a violation of "separation," something that flies in the face not just of the Statute but over 230 years of American history. This is not only our right, it's our duty.

This year, we are supporting initiatives that we hope will restore the real meaning of Jefferson's Statute. One, an amendment to the state constitution by Senator Stanley — working with Senator Bill Carrico (R-40, Galax) — would seek to reestablish our rights as citizens to pray at public government meetings, a longstanding tradition that the secular left has sought to stop, successfully in many cases, throughout Virginia.

Of course, one major threat to the freedom of all Americans is the federal government's mandate that citizens fund the birth control of others through President Obama's health insurance scheme, a mandate that is currently being challenged in nearly 30 lawsuits across the nation. While the secular left and abortion industry call this mandate about "access" to birth control, the truth is that it requires a redefinition of the word "access" to mean "paid for by somebody else at the expense of their freedom of conscience."

Big Week For Religious Liberty! (Or, Kaine And Stevens Cut From The Same Cloth)

Just two days ago, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered a 5-4 decision to uphold the display of a Cross on a World War I Mojave Desert memorial on what had been public property (once a national park, the land now is owned privately, yet a lower court ruled the Cross still could not be displayed.) In its majority opinion, the court stated:

The goal of avoiding governmental endorsement does not require the eradication of all religious symbols in the public realm.

The timing of the decision couldn't have been more fitting — the same day, Governor Bob McDonnell reversed the Kaine administration's discriminatory prayer policy that prohibited Virginia State Police chaplains from praying at public events according to their faith.

Religious liberty 2, ACLU 0!

This recent Supreme Court case, Salazar v. Buono, reversed the decision from a California lower court that ordered the removal of a Cross placed by the Veterans of Foreign Wars in the Mojave National Preserve in 1934 as a memorial to World War I soldiers (see California Catholic Daily). The circumstances surrounding the case, however, are far from simple.

The disagreement began in 1999 when a retired National Park Service employee sued saying that the Cross on public property constituted an unconstitutional establishment of religion. A federal court agreed and ordered that the Cross be removed. The decision was appealed and the U.S. 9th Circuit Court (the nation's most left-wing court) upheld lower court's decision. However, in 2003, before the Cross could be removed, Congress intervened and transferred the land in question to a private owner in an effort to side step the controversy.

Once again the lower courts and 9th Circuit weighed in and stated that Congress' maneuver was objectionable and did not solve the problem. In the meantime, plywood was used to cover the cross to prevent "any further harm." The U.S. Supreme Court then granted cert in the case to put the confusion to rest.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion and sent the case back to the lower court to be reassessed "in light of a policy of accommodation." The logical assumption is that the display of the Cross will now be allowed. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas agreed with the majority, but additionally argued that the retired park employee did not have standing to sue since the property had been transferred to a private owner. In addition, while the court did not specifically rule on the display of a Cross on public property, it certainly hinted that it would find such a display acceptable in some circumstances.

However, the written dissent truly was tragic. Justice John Paul Stevens, soon to retire,  wrote that the Cross was an improper and intolerable government endorsement of a specific faith. Similar to Kaine's discriminatory chaplain prayer policy, this opinion is yet another example of growing anti-Christian sentiment (see Huffington Post for anti-Catholic hysterics). Simply the fact that four Supreme Court justices could buy into this "logic" of censorship is proof that we must do more to protect our freedom of conscience. The Family Foundation will continue to keep a pulse on this issue and work on efforts to further protect religious liberty.