It’s time to place religious freedom on the endangered species list.
Threats against the First Amendment free exercise clause are increasing in intensity and frequency. Most recently, under the pretext of pandemic emergency, state and local government imposed unprecedented restrictions on public religious worship.
Although a few churches have challenged such restrictions through litigation or civil disobedience, for the most part America’s religious institutions – and their congregants – have reacted with timid obeisance to these attacks on the practice of their faith. They complacently accept, or are Media-shamed into accepting, the narrative that houses of worship are “non-essential” but that Walmart, casinos, and Planned Parenthood are “essential”.
This complacency must end. In its place should be defiance and robust skepticism toward unconstitutional assaults on religion. A ground-up, grassroots movement of education and action is needed to impassion and embolden the hearts and minds, not of those assaulting religious freedom, but of those whose freedoms are threatened.
Recent assaults on religious freedom are nefarious. Governments cynically exploit pandemic fears to justify restrictions by employing a false dichotomy: either you accept the restrictions or you selfishly want to jeopardize the lives of others. Relying on the premise that most people seek to avoid confrontation or social disapproval, governments thus intimidate people into surrendering their religious freedom.
Even worse, people watch as their religious leaders become role models of cowardice against government overreach. This mindset of docile compliance must change, and it can only change through collaborative effort and courageous action among the diverse religions, churches, and people of faith.
How religious groups worked to advance common principles
American history provides precedent for such collaboration among religions, most prominently the Abolitionist movement in the 19th Century and the pro-life movement of the past half-century. Although the Thirteenth Amendment formally ended slavery in 1865, the path to that Amendment started decades earlier in individual churches and among individual congregants and clergy. Passionate and articulate, individual faithful ignited the grassroots dialogue on slavery that would eventually persuade a nation. In our own time, the pro-life movement has successfully persuaded millions through patient but relentless grassroots efforts.
Notably, these persuasions have not occurred because of court victories or legislative action, but rather in spite of them. Courts and legislatures rarely provide the panacea relief wished by many. For 50 years the Supreme Court has shown consistent hostility toward pro-life arguments. Religious freedom has seen some relief, but even the recent Supreme Court victory of the Little Sisters of the Poor resulted in only a limited decision in their favor, and only after nearly ten years of litigation. Few victims of religious oppression have the resources or endurance for protracted lawsuits.
A Coordinated Defense for Freedom, for Life, and now for Faith
Historically, courts and legislatures can even inflame conflicts. Roe v. Wade ignited an ongoing cultural war over abortion. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the Dred Scott decision inflamed both sides and guaranteed there could be no top-down solution to slavery. In an unprecedented grassroots approach, abolitionists formed a unique coalition of religious groups who tolerated their theological differences in favor of the commonly shared belief of the evil of slavery. By sheer force of will this coalition argued faith and reason as inseparable components to expose and defeat slavery. A similar coalition underlies the pro-life movement.
Today we need a similarly constituted coalition of religious groups united toward advancing the common goal of religious freedom. By education, passion, example, and persuasion, such a coalition can instill in people of faith the urgency of the cause and the courage to advance it.