“[all men have] equal title to the free exercise of Religion according to the dictates of Conscience.”
“…all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion.”
—James Madison, Article XVI, Virginia Declaration of Rights
This language, crafted originally for the Virginia Declaration of Rights, would go on to be codified in the U.S. Constitution. Madison’s inspiration for this provision in Virginia came from watching one church denomination, using the leverage of the state, trying to supplant another.
And with this proclamation, James Madison entered the early debate over religious freedom vs. religious tolerance in the new republic and positioned himself as a leader in understanding the problem with trying to equate the two concepts. Madison understood that what the state elected to tolerate it could also elect to not tolerate and argued that freedom to exercise religion, or conscience, was unalienable—not granted by the state.
We may have forgotten this early lesson learned. On the first Tuesday in December 2017, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on a case that could have a significant impact on faith and work, not only for Christians but all people of faith.
Religious Freedom vs. Anti-Discrimination Laws
The current Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case pits anti-discrimination laws against First Amendment rights and religious freedom.
The court must address the question, can the United States government force Jack Phillips, a Christian baker, to make a cake for a same-sex wedding?
After the oral arguments, Jack Phillips discussed his concerns about the freedom of conscience:
Though I serve everyone who comes into my shop, like many other creative professionals, I don’t create custom designs for events or messages that conflict with my conscience. I don’t create cakes that celebrate Halloween, promote sexual or anti-American themes, or disparage people, including individuals who identify as LGBT. For me, it’s never about the person making the request. It’s about the message the person wants the cake to communicate.
I am here at the Supreme Court today because I respectfully declined to create a custom cake that would celebrate a view of marriage in direct conflict with my faith’s core teachings on marriage.
This case follows other recent, high-profile religious-freedom cases involving Christians, such as Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. and Zubik v. Burwell. Based on media attention all three cases have drawn, we might be persuaded to think that religious-freedom cases are frequent and that the majority of religious-freedom cases involve Christians.
Religious Freedom in the Courts
A recent study conducted by Rachel Busick and Luke W. Goodrich puts the last five years of religious-freedom litigation in proper perspective:
- Religious-freedom cases are actually rare―only one percent of all cases in federal court.
- Half of all religious-freedom cases are brought by inmates challenging prison policies or by asylum seekers claiming religious persecution in their country of origin.
- Many religious-freedom claims are dismissed on procedural grounds before getting a hearing. The majority of those heard still lose.
- Of the 10,000 cases brought to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in the past five years, only four were successful religious-freedom cases and none of them involved Christian issues.
- Of all the religious-freedom cases brought to the 10th Circuit Court in the six states under its jurisdiction, religious minorities (Hindus, Native Americans, and Muslims) were overrepresented proportionately and Christians were underrepresented.
This is not a bad thing. Christians should welcome all religious freedom cases and defend religious freedom for everyone.
As Jennifer Marshall writes, “Freedom of religion is a cornerstone of the American experiment. That is because religious faith is not merely a matter of toleration but is understood to be the exercise of inherent natural rights.”
Right to Follow One’s Conscience
There are many who believe the First Amendment is the most important part of the Bill of Rights. It protects the most fundamental of rights―the right of conscience. Scripture itself advocates for this freedom,
For our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience, that we behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God, and supremely so toward you. (2 Cor. 1:12)
Paul even argues for a right to freedom of conscience when people’s views are misguided (Rom. 14).
Out of this First Amendment freedom flow freedom of speech, which includes freedom of the press, freedom to assemble, freedom to petition, and freedom to associate. These all protect our freedom to believe and express our beliefs in different ways, making democratic self-government possible.
Jim Campbell, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, recently explained why Christians should support such freedoms for everyone,
Since the freedom to know and follow God is foundational to our humanity, it belongs to both Christians and non-Christians alike. This is not to say that all religious beliefs are equally true (they aren’t), but rather that all individuals must have the freedom to worship God and live peacefully with what they believe he’s calling them to do. Nor is this to say that religious freedom gives people the license to do anything they want, like physically harm or kill others. Undoubtedly, religious freedom has limits. But within these bounds, all are entitled to share in its benefits.
Christians are called to love and serve our neighbors. And this is why we should be willing to sacrifice our time and resources to protect religious freedom for everyone. We do it because we are defending a freedom that God has given to us all. The Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case is not only important to Christians but to all U.S. citizens.
If the government rules against religious freedom in this case, it will serve to marginalize those who hold beliefs outside of the favored viewpoint and that should concern us all.
As Jack Phillips explains in a recent op-ed in The Washington Post:
It is troubling to imagine what the future looks like for me and the millions of others—whether Muslims, orthodox Jews, or fellow Christians—who believe as part of their faith that marriage is the union of a man and a woman…We all want to belong. I’m no different. The Supreme Court’s decision in my case will say a lot about the First Amendment. But I sure hope the court makes it clear that I belong, too.
The Supreme Court will rule on this case sometime this summer.
Editor’s note: Learn more about why religious freedom is essential for human flourishing in Free Indeed: Living Life in Light of the Biblical View of Freedom.