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FIRST-PERSON: The gritty reality of freedom

EDITOR’S NOTE: J. Randy Forbes represents the 4th Congressional District of Virginia and is a member of Great Bridge Baptist Church in Chesapeake, Va.

WASHINGTON (BP) — The American government is rooted in the fundamental truth that all are created equal, endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Our Constitution was uniquely crafted as a democracy designed to protect us from the natural human impulse to crowd out those with whom we disagree.

Freedom was won with blood and sacrifice and has been continually defended with the same, but preserving it for future generations requires more than just physical defense. Each generation must be taught anew what our freedoms cost and why we must defend them for everyone.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

The first clause of the First Amendment was born out of a deeply divided approach to religious freedom in the American colonies. Some colonies, like Pennsylvania, were founded with an open invitation to people from all religious traditions to be free to live out their faith without restraint.

Others had government-established churches consistent with many European traditions. In Virginia, citizens who were not members of the Anglican church could not hold public office, and religious leaders who dissented were required to notify the government and obtain a license before they could preach. The government held complete power over the amount and degree of religious toleration for dissenters.

This changed in Virginia in 1786, when the Virginia Assembly passed the Statute for Religious Freedom. Authored by Thomas Jefferson, this legislation protected the rights of citizens to freely profess and maintain their religious beliefs, and it became the model for the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.

Since the ratification of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the government has been prohibited from interfering with what is taught in churches. It has also been prohibited from restricting an individual’s ability to fully participate in public life simply because of what he or she believes.

Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.

The founding of the American colonies brought with it the heritage of government censorship through the use of licensing orders for publications — censorship which poet John Milton opposed in his famous publication, “Areopagitica.” Early Americans knew all too well the dangers of a government empowered with the ability to silence speech, so special protection was provided to restrain such censorship.

Protections for speech on issues of public concern, including religious, social and political commentary, have been historically robust. Yet each generation has been tested in their commitment to protecting even the unpopular speech amid arguments that a social good would be achieved through silencing it.

Congress shall make no law … abridging … the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The ability to express an idea is virtually useless without the freedom to associate with others who share that view. As the Supreme Court reinforced in 1984, protecting personal bonds that cultivate shared ideals and beliefs from “unwarranted state interference therefore safeguards the ability independently to define one’s identity that is central to any concept of liberty.”

Whether through churches, nonprofits, businesses, organizations or political parties, our ability to organize around and act on shared beliefs and ideas is fundamental.

Though each clause of the First Amendment protects a different freedom, there is a common denominator. Each clause protects the ability to act, reflecting that our exercise of these freedoms cannot reasonably be limited to an idea but must also encompass the way in which each American lives their lives in step with those ideas. The Constitution does not protect the right not to be offended by the expression or exercise of another point of view.

The government is obviously and explicitly restrained from infringing on our freedoms of religion, speech, press and assembly — restrictions as obvious as the historical examples laid out here would have a difficult time surviving in modern American courts.

But attacks on our First Amendment rights are likely to be much more subtle, and restrictions on these freedoms in the name of tolerance or social benefit, while less obvious, are no more constitutional than their 18th-century ancestors.

The gritty reality of protecting freedom is this: It is hard work because a true commitment to defending these freedoms for all means you will need to defend the rights of others to express and live by views with which you may greatly disagree. Americans do not check their freedom at the door when they leave their home or place of worship and enter the public sphere.

We live in a country whose laws have historically sought to respect freedom and diversity, and our Constitution has always had robust protections for all Americans to live and work by their convictions. Yet we now are facing another test of how seriously we take these freedoms.

The question is, Will we rise as a nation to this challenge, or will we shrink from protecting these rights for everyone because our stand may come with an unpopular cost? Are these rights the prize of citizenship, or will we be asked to surrender them as the price of citizenship? To succeed, we must first accept the gritty reality of protecting freedom.

    About the Author

  • J. Randy Forbes