Across this nation, from local governments, to state, and federal legislatures and through various court rulings on religious issues, one can clearly recognize the persistent and concerted efforts to redefine and weaken the protections of the First Amendment. The First Amendment is not an afterthought in the U.S. Constitution; its historical significance should not be underestimated or forgotten. Three years after the Constitution came into effect, the framers added ten amendments to ensure the protection of individual rights for all citizens. The First Amendment includes arguably the most important constitutional principles necessary to maintaining our democratic form of government.
In fact, the First Amendment is intended as the foundational guideline adhered to by all levels of government – federal, state and local – when enacting and implementing laws and ordinances. As David French, senior writer for the National Review notes, “Every other American law–whether a federal statute, state constitutional provision, state law or university regulation–is subordinate to and subject to review under this Bill of Rights.”
In this time of radically changing social norms and hyper-polarization, fundamental elements of our First Amendment rights are viewed by some as controversial and called into question. Many now seem believe that claims about “religious freedom” are smokescreens for discrimination. In such a social climate, it is no surprise that religious freedoms are being weakened under the guises of the separation of church and state, and neutral principles of law.
Examples abound of religious liberty being eroded by government encroachment and judicial overreach. Consider the case of the contraceptives mandate included in the Affordable Care Act signed into law by President Barak Obama in 2010. Enforced by the US Department of Health and Human Services, it mandated that religious organizations with employees set aside their religious convictions to comply with the law’s requirement to provide contraceptive health coverage. As a result, the Little Sisters of the Poor filed a federal suit against the US Department of Health and Human Services for the violation of their First Amendment rights. On June 5, 2019, Judge Reed O’Connor of the Northern District of Texas issued a nationwide injunction barring implementation of the contraceptive mandate. The court found this mandate to be a clear violation of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) that clarifies and strengthens federal protections for the free exercise of religion, as guaranteed in the First Amendment.
Cases such as those precipitated by the contraceptive mandate are significant because they are setting legal precedents with far-reaching implications. This is also true of another case currently before Washington DC’s Superior Court involving the Unification Church movement of the late Rev. Sun Myung Moon.
As often happens in spiritual movements when the founding visionary ages and eventually passes away, the remaining community of believers can become seriously divided about how the founding vision should be carried forward, organized and led. In such circumstances, religious disputes and even schisms are inevitable and almost predictable.
However, while such disputes must be resolved within that particular community of believers, in this case the DC court has inserted itself with the presumed authority to judge which vision for the Unification movement is correct. In a summary judgement in October 2018, the Court ruled the theological positions of the plaintiff group as valid. In doing so, the Court disregarded the First Amendment and decided how a DC-based religious nonprofit may use its resources. Rather than properly abstaining from deciding a constitutionally protected religious matter, the DC Court effectively determined as a matter of law, the leadership, structure and purpose of the Unification movement. Such judicial overreach into the affairs of this minority religion sets a precedent that should deeply concern all religious groups and people of faith.
In this case, and in many others, courts are overreaching their authority by improperly intervening in religious disputes. In doing so they are undermining the most foundational of First Amendment freedoms. The dangerous precedents being set should seriously concern all religious entities, faith communities, and people of conscience and in particular, to those who serve as board members and officers.
In other rulings as in this case, the courts are misapplying and overextending religious liberty exceptions to justify each progressive encroachment. The ongoing erosion of the freedom of religion, belief and conscience should be alarming to all Americans. Our God-given rights and freedoms are at risk and require that we take heed and take action to protect them.