Freedom of Religious Belief in the Culture and Laws of the United States
The United States has long been known as the place where dreams come true and freedom of religion reigns. However, this country has not always been that way, evidenced by numerous instances of religious persecution by way of archaic laws and personal bias against other people's religions. This essay will examine freedom of religion within the United States, discuss laws and rights dealing with this freedom and also examine the current state of this right and the future of religious freedom.
A common misconception is that the founding fathers of this country were all Christian and that America was founded upon the foundation of Christianity. However, this is not the truth. In fact, the majority of our founding fathers were Deists meaning "they thought the universe had a creator, but that he does not concern himself with the daily lives of humans, and does not directly communicate with humans, either by revelation or by sacred books. They spoke often of God, (Nature's God or the God of Nature), but this was not the God of the bible. They did not deny that there was a person called Jesus, and praised him for his benevolent teachings, but they flatly denied his divinity" (Founding 1). However, they all fought for American's rights to enjoy religious freedoms. In fact, the first amendment clearly states "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" (Findlaw 1). The first amendment also contains an establishment clause which prevents the government "from passing laws that will establish an official religion or preferring one religion over another" (Illinois 1). Another clause addressing freedom of religion is the Free Exercise clause which prevents the government from interfering with someone's religion or how they practice it (Illinois 1). These clauses protect people from religious prejudice and grants rights no matter what faith they are.
The guarantees provided for people of all faith groups include the right to worship as they please, although there are some things, to include some rituals and actions that can be prevented by the government (Illinois 1). The government cannot interfere in personal religious practices unless they occur on school grounds. This leads into the separation of church and state and sometimes the lines can be blurred. For the most part, if the school does not sponsor or endorse any religious activity or prayer, they can occur (First 1). Religious rights can be defined many ways but Auburn University defines one of them as "Every person has the right to the privacy of his belief, to express his religious beliefs in worship, teaching, and practice, and to proclaim the implications of his beliefs for relationships in a social or political community (Auburn 1). This leads on to the government usually not getting interfering in religious issues. A quote from the Supreme Court sums it up relatively well: "If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that NO official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein, If there are ANY circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us" (Auburn 1).
Currently, the United States has a relatively tolerable attitude towards religious freedoms. However, there are still sects of all different types of religions that show a relative disregard for the beliefs of other religions. Just today, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Westboro Church. This church is widely despised by the American people because they picket military funerals and believe that homosexuals have no rights (Ross 1). In other current news, the state of Tennessee is considering a bill to ban Shariah law (Miller 1). Many people believe that Shariah law incites violence but critics of this bill believe that it is bigoted and is damaging to the exercise of freedom of religion. In the Wiccan community, outrage came about when Christine O'Donnell referred to witchcraft being something that was dark and evil and referred to having a date on a satanic altar (Creed 1). As Wicca is a neo-pagan earth based religion and is in no way evil, O'Donnell spun up the Wiccan community and incited one of the leading Wiccan spokeswomen to respond in writing. Starhawk simply responded that Wiccans did not worship Satan because they believed it was an invention of the Christian church and that whatever date she went on, it was not with a Wiccan (Starhawk 1). These are three of the more major episodes concerning religious tolerance but for the most part, Americans are understanding and feel that people have the freedom to choose however they wish to worship.
The founding fathers view points on religious freedoms were radical in those times. They wished that everyone had the same rights so they chose to use the view that everyone was created equal. In no way did they want the government to be able to choose one church to rule over everyone such as England had (Founding 1). In the past, it was declared that kings ruled the land by divine authority (such as the voice of God) but the founding fathers decreed that the government should be ruled by the governed (Founding 1). This led to the concept of a government for the people and by the people and crushed the ability of a dictatorship. "Many people came to America to search for religious freedom. Their hope was to escape the religious persecution they were facing in their countries. The one thing they did not want to do was to establish a church like the Church of England. The colonists wanted a chance to worship freely and have an opportunity to choose which religion they wanted to take part in" (Brewer, Jaques, Jones, King 1). The concept of freedom of religion was unheard of in other countries and the founding fathers wanted to make sure everyone was free and had the freedom to worship as they wished. America had quite a bit of issues to work out with this right because deep seated prejudices were still held leading to some of the worst times in our history such as the Salem Witchcraft Trials and the Great Awakening (Brewer, Jaques, Jones, King 1).
After the events of September 11th, the Islamic religion came under fire for being a religion that incited violence and terrorism. However, while Muslims vocalize that they are a religion of peace, their viewpoints sometimes verge on radical and extremist. An interesting article written by Daniel Pipes states that while the American people were shocked at the death of over 3,000 people, Muslims had a different opinion and felt that the "sudden terror" that came upon the U.S. that day was nothing compared to "more than eighty years of ‘humiliation and disgrace' at American hands, during which its sons were killed and its sanctities defiled. Twenty-seven days versus eighty years sums up the difference between a stunned American sense of ruptured innocence and the brooding militant Islamic feeling of epochal betrayal and trauma" (1). These feelings versus the feelings of the American people have led to some restrictions that some people feeling are infringing on personal and religious rights. One of the main issues that arising from this attack is racial profiling. Critics of racial profiling believe that it violates the fourteenth amendment and also that since it focuses on one type of terrorist (Arab), others may slip through security more freely (Head 1). Muslims also believe that racial profiling, away from the airport violates their religious freedoms as well. A woman in Florida sued because she felt her religious rights were violated after she refused to remove her veil for a driver's license photo (Orlando 1). Another suit involved a Muslim man who was washing his hands and feet in preparation for Islamic prayers. A police officer walked in and proceeded to manhandle and assault him (Rucker 1). All of these issues point to changes needing to be made in religious tolerance and possibly constitutional changes to allow for certain freedoms and provisions in other types of religions to include Islam.
However, there should also be exceptions to some provisions for people's religious freedoms. There should absolutely be a law that prohibits any type of religious behavior that permits or condones any type of violence. This is a very slippery slope because violence can be incited by not only the practicing people of a church but also by the people they affect with their behavior. In the case of the Westboro Church, their actions can be considered by many to be extremely inflammatory. They travel across the country and picket military personnel funerals (Ross 1). Now, while their actions are protected by free speech, a grieving father or mother may not see it the same way while they are being heckled at their child's funeral. In this case, religious freedoms should also be limited to not inciting hatred or bigotry because it can ultimately lead to violence. However, the First Amendment clearly states that Congress makes "no exception" (Find 1). So, while there are exceptions that clearly need to be made, any changes will require a constitutional amendment. Another exception that should be made is religious attire, except in the cases where a photo is legally required for identification to protect the safety of law enforcement personnel. Headscarves and other religious attire should be allowed at any other times than for mandatory identification (Soda 1). Another issue is that religious freedom should prevent some people in certain career fields from working in them. For example, a Catholic person who does not believe in abortion should probably not be working in an emergency room or other type of clinic that could prescribe the morning after pill (Red 1). It really is a situation that could almost be considered a hopeless fix because everyone has such strong opinions about religion and how they believe religious freedom should be. Although there should definitely be some changes to the laws, it should never compromise the foundation of our religious freedoms or our ability to worship as we choose to.
In Middle Eastern countries, Christians are still persecuted. Their political system is completely different from ours and religious freedom is not something that is typically granted. For example, Saudi Arabia has no freedom of religion and the practice of any other type of religion in public is strictly prohibited (Teen 1). "Saudi Arabia is a country severely lacking freedom of expression. As articulated by Freedom House, ‘Authorities do not permit criticism of Islam or the ruling family by domestic media, and a national security law prohibits criticism of the government'" (Teen 1). This means that no citizen of Saudi Arabia can even make a comment that does not show Islam in a favorable light. This country has never tried to afford its citizens this freedom and it does not appear that they will ever consider it. Other countries do not have rules this strict. Israel, for example, is a democratic country and affords its citizens the freedom to worship as they choose (Shetreet 1). So far, although Israel has their fair share of issues, democracy as well as freedom of religion is working well. Ireland is also a democratic country and affords its citizens the freedom of religion. The United States Department of State website reports that "the constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice" (State 1). This is a little different than the United States where there are no exceptions to the freedom of religion clause so it appears that Ireland has a little bit more room to interfere in their citizen's lives when it comes to religion, however there do not seem to have been any issues of any type of religious persecution.
In the future, the United States will have to face the issues that are coming up to ensure that America stays a democracy with true religious freedom. People come to America to live the American dream: financial prosperity, freedom of person and freedom of religion. However, with all of the different religions that currently exist in the United States there has to be some recognition of flexing the rules somewhat to make sure that no one is persecuted in their religious practices. This is not to say that America should bend the laws so much that lives or liberty are put in jeopardy, but there should be tolerance and acceptance of other's religions as long as there is no danger in it. An interesting note is that religion and politics appear to be merging and many younger people are turned off by this notion. In fact, "Historically, about 5 percent of people identified as having no religion at all. Among young people, that figure is now 30 percent" (PRI 1). This is a huge increase and suggests that people are beginning to get frustrated by the pressure they feel when their religions mix with politics and want to go their own way without pressure from anyone. Also, most people want their religion free of violence or anything related to violence to make sure that it stays relevant. "The third hallmark of future religions is that they need to be socially relevant and liberating, opposing tyranny and social injustice. Religions of the future need to afford opportunities for sharing, compassion, peacemaking, and the manifestation of love. This love should be extended to the natural environment, a resource that is threatened by global warming, pollution, desertification, and the destruction of the rain forests" (Krippner 1). This type of religious hallmark will ensure that people stay interested and motivated in their pursuit of religion and that the government does not need to become involved with it. However, this could also hurt the government in the long run because sometimes government is involved in social injustice...if not literally, then in the opinion of its citizens. Currently the religious right has used "divisive tactics" to recruit more people to their churches, especially exploiting the Muslims and their faith (Krippner 1). However, this really could not be considered "freedom" but more of a way to recruit people over to their way of thinking. This actually can hurt the establishment of the freedom of religion. Religious issues have driven some of the greatest movements in history, to include abortion and women's suffrage (Krippner 1). Issues like these will continue to drive the American people into fighting what they believe in but as long as religious freedoms stand in this country, everyone's opinions will be heard and hopefully tolerated.
Freedom of religion is one of the main foundations that this country stands upon. Although we live in a democracy, a democracy could not exist if its citizens did not have freedom of religion. People come from all over the world to live in this country because they believe that they will have rights and freedoms that they could not have in their own countries. Freedom of religion allows everyone the right to worship as they please and in whatever way that they choose to. America is normally known for its religious tolerance; however, in the case of the Westboro Church their actions incite hatred and no tolerance so they are wearing on the American public's patience. In contrast, freedom of speech is also a right, as hard as it may be to accept sometimes and to muffle that would be the beginning of the erosion of our constitution. Everyone wants to be able to live in a place that they can feel comfortable in. Persecution is not something that normally occurs, however, people can still be bigoted and short-sighted when it comes to accepting another person's way of life. In America, freedom of religion is protected, even when someone else does not like it. This helps us continue to live and worship as we choose without having to be really worried about any possible repercussions. This is one of the rights that, in our generation, we have always grown up with and one that should continue to remain intact for the duration of our lives.
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