Rep. Chris Stewart: The Constitution alone isn’t enough to protect religious liberty

“Minority rights and freedom of thought have always required diligent defense,” Rep. Stewart writes.

By Chris Stewart Feb 20, 2021, 10:00pm MST

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” I often call this “the first freedom,” as the Founders listed it first among the inalienable rights granted by God and protected by the Constitution, yet it is currently under attack.

On Feb. 5, in an act that would have sent shockwaves through the nation a few decades ago, the Senate voted against protecting the free exercise of religion. The vote fell along party lines, with every Democrat opposed. By contrast, as recently as 1993, when the Senate passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the body voted 97-3 to protect religious liberty. That effort was led by one of the Senate’s most liberal members, Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy. Alarmingly, this First Amendment guarantee has now been politicized as a partisan issue.

Religious freedom is more than the freedom to attend a worship service at a church, mosque or synagogue — it protects our right to live, speak and act peacefully and publicly according to one’s deeply held beliefs.

Religious freedom protects minorities from the cultural majority imposing their beliefs through the power of the government. Whether you attend services on Saturday, Sunday or not all at — whether you worship in a church, a coffee shop or out in nature — freedom of religion protects all.

Protecting all views, from the politically popular to the unpopular, from believers to nonbelievers, against discrimination in employment, commerce, social services, access to housing, health care or education should be a nonpartisan and widely accepted priority.

And yet, this most fundamental of protections failed to get support in the United States Senate. It is a harbinger of danger ahead. Though most Americans still treasure religious freedom, it appears that slim majorities in our legislative branch do not.

Though the idea of religious liberty is deeply ingrained in our national psyche, the practice of it has always been a challenge. Early settlers came to this land seeking religious liberty but struggled to tolerate other faiths. Protestant faiths enjoyed proliferation while, at different times, Catholics, Jews, Muslims and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints endured persecution.

In these supposedly more enlightened times, we might expect tolerance for unpopular beliefs to be a little more popular. But as America becomes less interested in established religion, too many Americans are willing to let disinterest in religion grow into disdain for religious liberty. That is a mistake we will regret if we let it continue.

We do ourselves, and the nation, a disservice if we neglect the public good that religious freedom provides in society. For those who are religious, and a part of an organized religion, it offers a sense of community, charitable giving, volunteerism and humanitarian relief. For those who are not religious, it allows them to believe in whatever, or whomever, they want to believe in. Religious freedom gives everyone the choice to live the way they want to live, believe the way they want to believe, and worship the way they want to worship. Free exercise is deeply and fundamentally tied to the idea of America.

COVID-19 has threatened everything from our social interactions to our livelihoods. It has also threatened our ability to worship — further jeopardizing our religious liberty. The constitutionally protected right to worship was severely limited or banned even as casinos, marijuana dispensaries and film shoots were labeled essential. Religious exercise was deemed nonessential, like a pastime that lacks the importance of other truly indispensable activities. Accommodating religion, even in safe ways, seems to be a low priority for many governments at the federal, state or local levels.

The freedom to worship, including free exercise, is a core principle of our Constitution and a large part of what makes every individual unique. It is what forms our morals, actions and priorities. It is what allows someone to wear a necklace with a cross on it, students to miss school to observe religious holidays, groups to pray, or to choose not pray, and much more. The freedom to worship must not be taken for granted and we must work to preserve it for future generations.

The Constitution alone won’t be enough to protect religious liberty. Yes, it serves as a framework to define our rights, but defending those rights requires the support of laws, courts and public opinion as well. Minority rights and freedom of thought have always required diligent defense.

Safeguarding the First Amendment guarantee against prohibiting the free exercise of religion should never be partisan or controversial — it should stand outside of politics. We need to rally for the freedoms we must pass on to our children.

Chris Stewart represents Utah’s 2nd Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.