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Let's Stop Talking About Religion While Discussing Religious Freedom

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Many things frustrate me whenever religious freedom comes under attack, but one of the most aggravating is when a debate or discussion degenerates into a theological tug-of-war. Both sides of the political spectrum get so thrown off topic in these discussions. Round and round we go: “I interpret the Bible to say this,” versus, “Well, I interpret the Bible to say thus,” debating points of theological and doctrinal minutia which has been going on for centuries, and in some cases millennia.

The fact of the matter is, it doesn’t matter what the Bible, the Koran, the Veda, the Torah, or whatever religious text you choose, says. What matters is the meaning of the philosophical underpinnings of the Constitution (Amendments included) when it comes to our conceptions of what we call freedom. As my fellow student, Brian Miller discusses in his piece, “Let them eat cake, or else…,” our society is increasingly conflating the ideas of “liberty rights” and “claim rights.” (See Brian’s piece for a better understanding of these concepts.) If you understand the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act(s), at both the Federal and State levels as being about religion, you are missing the point. It is about freedom. Do we have the freedom to believe what we will, and do we have the freedom AND right to live and act upon those beliefs within the law?

The Libertarian in me wants to hinge on the argument that the Constitution guarantees me the right to exercise my beliefs, free from intrusion by the State, so long as I am not violating another law, or harming (denying the rights of) others in the process. But in a societal environment where the legal interpretation of the Constitution seems to be up for grabs, we must be able to not only cite the Constitution, but also articulate the moral philosophy behind the rights we are asserting the Constitution protects. In the recent Hobby Lobby Supreme Court Case, Justice Kennedy wrote:

“…freedom means that all persons have the right to believe or strive to believe in a divine creator and a divine law…It means, too, the right to express those beliefs and to establish one’s religious (or nonreligious) self-definition in the political, civic, and economic life of our larger community.”

Ask yourself, are you able to go beyond “the Constitution says so” and present a persuasive argument for why Justice Kennedy is correct? If we cannot–if we are unable to morally and philosophically, not just legally, justify our rights to freely express our beliefs–then how are we ever going to win the argument which asserts that the Constitution protects those rights from the claim of others? The “claim rights” argument will ultimately win out and become the only rights to which legal protection covers if we fail to articulate the philosophical underpinnings for the freedom which we so cherish.

Endowment of rights from a Creator is a valid argument, but is it a sound one, and can we articulate it?

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