America’s First Freedom

A NOTE FROM THE PUBLISHER: As we approach the 245th anniversary of the ‘American Experiment,’ let us take stock of the state of religious liberty in the United States.

An American flag flies in front a church steeple in the Midwest.
An American flag flies in front a church steeple in the Midwest. (photo: Amanda Wayne / Shutterstock)

Above all else, Independence Day is the United States’ celebration of the love of liberty that is at the heart of our national narrative. Every Fourth of July, we recommit ourselves to the hard-fought freedoms that our independence and our founding principles have afforded our citizens. 

Religious freedom is one of the most cherished of these liberties, and it is anchored in the right of an individual to act upon his or her conscience and deeply held beliefs, both privately and publicly — and collectively in community with each other. Indeed, religious freedom is America’s First Freedom, enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and fleshed out in the lives of successive generations of Americans for nearly 250 years through today. 

Living as we do in a time of growing hostility to religion, recent popes have gone out of their way to praise this American commitment to religious liberty. As Pope Benedict XVI remarked during his visit to Washington in 2008, “The spirit of our age is profoundly secular, and secularism accepts religion — if it accepts it at all — only on its own terms. Under this view, religion is subordinated to the political interests of the secular state, and it is precisely this subordination of religion to the state that the First Amendment seeks to prevent.” 

So as July 4 approaches, there is no better time to take stock of the state of religious liberty here in the United States. 

Another reason for such a review is because June is the month when the U.S. Supreme Court often releases major decisions that impact religious freedom. On June 17, the court released a 9-0 judgment in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, striking down the unjust ban on Catholic adoption services that the city of Philadelphia imposed in 2018 because the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Catholic Social Services (CSS) declines to certify same-sex couples as foster parents. 

Unanimously, the justices ruled that Philadelphia’s targeting of the faith-based agency’s First Amendment rights to free exercise of their religion was illegal. As Chief Justice John Roberts noted in the court’s majority opinion, “CSS seeks only an accommodation that will allow it to continue serving the children of Philadelphia in a manner consistent with its religious beliefs; it does not seek to impose those beliefs on anyone else.” 

The majority opinion relied on narrow grounds, sparking criticism from conservative justices that the court failed to provide an even more robust affirmation of religious rights in this context. Still, the Fulton decision is heartening in that even the court’s most liberal members were willing to join in a categorical rejection of this governmental discrimination against a Catholic charitable agency and the religiously motivated foster parents who work with it. 

And it’s important to keep in mind the nature of the actions that the Supreme Court was affirming in this case: the efforts by individuals and institutions to live out their Christian faith by extending tangible help to some of Philadelphia’s most disadvantaged and vulnerable children. 

Secularists routinely claim that religious liberty is merely a guise for discrimination. But such a false framing belittles the sincere conviction of religious believers. Whenever political authorities drive religious believers who seek to remain consistent with the truths of their faith from the public square, U.S. society is deprived of their witness of selfless service and the fruits of their labor. 

Pope Francis recognized this threat when he implored U.S. citizens to preserve and defend religious freedom during his 2015 U.S. papal visit. 

“American Catholics are committed to building a society which is truly tolerant and inclusive to safeguarding the rights of individuals and communities and to rejecting every form of unjust discrimination,” he said. “With countless other people of goodwill, they are likewise concerned that efforts to build a just and wisely ordered society respect their deepest concerns and their right to religious liberty. That freedom remains one of America’s most precious possessions.”

The Fulton decision was the latest confirmation of the decisive trend in recent years for the Supreme Court to protect religious-liberty rights when these crucial freedoms are unconstitutionally constrained. According to a study released earlier this year by legal scholars Lee Epstein and Eric Posner, the court has ruled in favor of religious claimants 81% of the time since 2005. In the 52 years before that, the figure stood at only about 50%. 

While that provides some measure of assurance going forward, the high court will certainly continue to hear a succession of cases with significant religious-liberty implications. In fact, it’s possible that one of those will involve Jack Phillips, whose refusal to bake a wedding cake in 2012 for a same-sex civil marriage ceremony resulted in legal sanctions against the Christian baker by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The Supreme Court ruled in its 2018 Masterpiece Cakeshop decision that Phillips hadn’t been granted a fair hearing by the state civil rights commission. 

Yet, not content to allow Phillips to resume his business afterward in accordance with his religious convictions, a biological man who identifies as a woman sued him in 2018 because he had declined to bake a cake celebrating the person’s “gender transition.” 

Despite Phillips’ earlier Supreme Court vindication, and despite the fact that the “gender transition” cake request was a transparent effort to target the baker yet another time for his Christian beliefs, on June 15, a Colorado state district court fined Phillips for violating the state’s anti-discrimination bylaws. 

One lesson to be learned from Phillips’ continuing legal persecutions is that religious freedom needs to be fought for politically as well as judicially. We can’t rely only on the Supreme Court. Staying the course on religious-liberty issues requires legislative action and courage on the part of believers, who need to work tirelessly in the political arena in addition to petitioning the courts to resist unconstitutional measures like the Colorado anti-discrimination law that has repeatedly entangled Jack Phillips. 

“Rather than grant privileges and rights to favored groups, our Founders restrained the state based on an understanding of equality before the law coupled with God-given inalienable rights,” Phillips’ lawyer, Ryan Bangert, noted in a commentary following the district court decision. “As Jack Phillips has shown us, that understanding is under assault. The hour is late. The battle must be joined.”

The U.S. bishops know this, too. On June 22, they initiated their annual Religious Freedom Week, in which they celebrate America’s religious liberty and call on Catholics to pray, reflect and take action with respect to current threats to that liberty. 

Among this year’s action items, the bishops are urging passage of the federal Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act, which would prevent government discrimination against faith-based child-welfare service providers, including adoption and foster-care agencies like Philadelphia’s Catholic Social Services. Another action item is support for passage of the Conscience Protection Act, which would protect medical professionals who choose not to participate in abortions.

The bishops also call for defeat of the Equality Act 2021, which, if passed, would codify the new ideology of “gender” in federal law, dismissing sexual difference and falsely presenting sexual identity as merely a social construct.

Fittingly, Religious Freedom Week began on the June 22 feast day of Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher, who were martyred because they remained true to the law of God in the face of King Henry VIII’s claims of sovereign power over England’s Christians. But as Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York observed in a video marking the start of this year’s Religious Freedom Week, the event is also timed to occur just ahead of July 4. 

“It’s not a coincidence that we observe this celebration as we approach Independence Day, the Fourth of July,” he said. “See, we Catholics want to work to protect our charitable institutions — our schools, hospitals, foster-care services — so that we can continue to serve this great country we cherish as our earthly home.”

As Cardinal Dolan is indicating, when properly understood, love of God and love of country are never in opposition. 

In fact, America’s entire existence, as the land of the free and the home of the brave, is predicated on the belief that God’s providence is guiding our national destiny. And that’s truly something to be celebrated every year on July 4.

God bless you!