Republicans have, once again, framed an issue to suit their own misguided – and downright false – interpretation of our Constitution. The original body of our U.S. Constitution contains scant mention of religion. One prohibition is the requirement of a “religious Oath” for the purposes of holding office at the federal level – keep in mind the Constitution was a guideline for the relationship between federal authority and state authority.
The new nation had to wait until 1791 to enjoy the efforts of the first Congress in attaching a Bill of Rights to the three-year-old Constitution. The Bill of Rights added ten amendments that dealt primarily with “rights” that the Founders felt essential to the survival of a free nation. The First Amendment addressed the issue of religion in two different and juxtaposed areas: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
In just one short sentence, the Founders created the potential for some of this country’s biggest social and legal battles. Yet, the first amendment references the prohibition against establishing a religion first – before providing the free exercise of religion. The fact that both of these appear before any other right – including freedom of speech and the right to bear arms – demonstrates the paramount importance that the Founders placed on the role of religion – or lack thereof – in the new Nation.
Republicans would have everyone believe – incorrectly – that religious freedom is absolute and that government cannot interfere with what they might consider a realm of religious freedom. But the reality is that, while beliefs are inviolate, when religion turns those beliefs into actions, those actions can be regulated by law.
States consistently make laws that interfere with the “free exercise of religion.” Members of certain denominations cannot handle poisonous snakes even though it is seen as a display of faith and trust in God. Native Americans are not free to use peyote in their ceremonies without consequences.
Parents whose child dies due to withholding life-saving medication based on a belief that prayer will heal may be held criminally responsible for that child’s death. Thus, to say that religious freedom trumps is false – no right in the Bill of Rights is absolute. Laws exist on many levels that govern religious freedom, yet Republicans would have the public shudder in fear that our “collective” religious freedom is on the verge of collapse because those who work for religious institutions must provide birth control.
If anything is absolute at all, it is the unabsoluteness of freedom of religion, regardless of the gnashing of Republican teeth and the desire to substitute a Bayer Aspirin for that little round packet of protection.