Let’s take a quick look at the “religion clause” of the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
The genius in this phrase is striking and it is a major foundation of the idea that produced American exceptionalism. No established church, but free religious exercise. This has resulted in a competitive marketplace of religious preferences that has allowed many flowers to bloom along with the weeds, and the resulting outlet for expression of belief has spared us from untold grief and conflict while making us the most religious nation on earth.
There is a growing problem, however. We are now being informed in myriad ways that the protection of free exercise has a meaning much different than intended, and this is producing a perversion of the purposes of religious freedom. Some examples: the substitution of “freedom to worship” by officials such as Hillary Clinton in place of religious freedom, as she did in a speech at Georgetown University; the limitation of religious freedom to private expressions of faith and the proscription of religiously grounded convictions from public expression, as with health care providers who object to certain medical procedures; and the constant public intimidation to accept the radical gay/lesbian rights agenda.
Some of these encroachments are more subtle than others, but all of them offer what George Weigel calls “a diminished view of religious freedom”. Further, he suggests that religious freedom, properly understood, cannot be reduced to freedom of worship. If this were the case, there is religious freedom in Saudi Arabia, where ex-patriots can attend Mass. No, religious freedom, rightly understood, includes the right to make religiously informed moral arguments on public policy in the public square without interference from the state. If this is not the common understanding derived from a reading of the First Amendment, then let’s have the debate before we wake up and find that the right to free exercise has been taken away.