Religious Freedom and the US Courts

Religious Freedom and the US Courts
Religious Freedom and the US Courts

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Our country’s forefathers knew how important it was to protect religious freedom, which is probably why the First Amendment that they worked on dealt with this important topic. But how did religious freedom become a cornerstone of our nation’s values and what rights and protections does it give us almost 230 years later?

What Does Religious Freedom Mean?

Having religious freedom in the US means that our right to act, live and speak according to our religious beliefs is protected at work, in school and in public.

The First Amendment covers all faiths and beliefs equally. This includes Atheists and Agnostics, which don’t necessarily believe in any kind of higher power. Not only does religious freedom mean the ability to practice your chosen faith, but it also means you can’t be forced to take part in a faith you don’t agree with. There’s no denying this has caused some strong feelings, debates and more than a few Supreme Court cases over the past several years.

Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission

On December 5, 2017, the US Supreme Court heard arguments for Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. This case involved a bakery owner from Denver, CO, who turned away a gay couple, refusing to bake a wedding cake for them. The reason for this refusal? The man identified as a Christian and believed that marriage should only happen between a man and a woman.

The gay couple felt that this had nothing to do with religious freedom and was actually discrimination. The couple decided to sue them and won in a lower court, which ruled that the bakery violated a Colorado law forbidding businesses that serve the public from discriminating based on someone’s sexual orientation.

The baker decided to appeal to the Supreme Court. He claimed that he was an artist and had the right to choose how he expressed himself. His religious beliefs were simply connected to that expression.

The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the lower court. It was explained that while LGBTQ people have certain civil rights protections, religious views are also protected forms of expression.

Burwell v. Hobby Lobby

Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission was the first major religious freedom case in the past few years, but certainly not the last. Courts across America have heard many cases in the same vein, while we as a nation try to figure out the line between freedom and discrimination. It doesn’t stop there.

In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled on Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. The foundation for this case started in 2010 after Congress passed the Affordable Care Act. Part of the ACA said that companies with more than 50 employees had to provide insurance that covered birth control. While non-profits, churches and religious orders were exempt from this rule, big businesses were not.

Hobby Lobby, an arts and crafts store owned by an Evangelical Christian, did not feel right about paying for his employee’s birth control due to his religious beliefs. Since Hobby Lobby has more than 20,000 employees, he did not qualify for an exemption.

In 2012, the store dropped its contraceptive coverage and filed a lawsuit. In June 2013, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit ruled that Hobby Lobby had the same rights as a person when it came to religious freedom. This was seen as a big win for people who wanted to show that you can own a large business and still stand up for your values and faith.

Religious freedom probably seemed like a basic concept back in 1791; keep the government out of our churches and don’t force anyone to practice something they don’t want to. But over time, as our society and morals keep changing, the rights that go along with religious freedom will continue to be analyzed and debated. Hopefully, we can learn how to achieve the delicate balance of faith, respect and freedom.

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