3. How can religious freedom in the United States be threatened when it’s already protected in the First Amendment?
There’s no question that the First Amendment protects religious freedom in important ways in the United States. For example:
- Government can’t establish an official church or favor one church over another.
- Government cannot discriminate against religious believers.
- All people have a fundamental right to believe, worship, and exercise their religious beliefs as they wish, so long as it doesn’t harm the health and safety of others.
- Individuals can gather together with other believers to form churches.
- Churches have a right to conduct their internal affairs without government interference.
- Government must sometimes provide special accommodations to religion.
- Government can listen to all voices—including religious voices—when making policy.
In a world where more than 75 percent of people live in countries with significant restrictions on religious freedom, Americans are fortunate indeed (see Pew Research Center, “Latest Trends in Religious Restrictions and Hostilities,” Feb. 26, 2015). But the First Amendment doesn’t protect all religious rights. Many religious freedoms are protected by ordinary laws. Unfortunately, some in government and advocacy groups are working hard to reduce legal protections for religious freedom. And we know from Church history that legal protections alone—even when written into the Constitution—aren’t always enough. Law follows culture. We need a culture that respects religion and religious freedom. The challenge is that as American society becomes more and more secular, fewer and fewer people see religion as important and worth protecting. So they reinterpret it as merely the “freedom to worship” or give other emerging rights greater priority. That’s the threat.