Second Place Graduate/‘Older’ Student Essay: An awful form of religious liberty by Isaac Haniff

FFRF awarded $2,000 to Isaac for his essay.

By Isaac Haniff

Semantic shift is the concept that words change their meaning over time. A simple example of this is the word “awful,” which used to mean “awe-inspiring,” but has since taken on a primarily negative connotation.

Some semantic shifts are benign and have consequences on nothing more than word choice, but in a more drastic direction we can also see this happening to a fundamental phrase woven into the American fabric.

“Religious liberty” used to mean the freedom to peacefully practice or abstain from practicing any religion of one’s choosing. Now it has become an effective weapon brandished by the Religious Right to impose its beliefs on others in the political sphere. This corrupted form of religious liberty is being used to safeguard self-labeled Christian institutions from the unfavorable legal implications of intolerance. The gradual morphing of what true religious liberty is runs counter to historical American values and has a distinctly harmful impact on current domestic policy issues.

In the mid-to-late 1700s, the Founding Fathers and their contemporaries had to establish new federal and state governments. It should be acknowledged that most either belonged to a denomination of Christianity or were Christian deists. For example, Thomas Jefferson poetically referenced “Nature’s God,” “[man’s] Creator,” and “Divine Providence,” in the United States Declaration of Independence. George Washington’s “Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789,” was imbued with even more religious sentiment:

“And also, that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to . . . render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws.”

Even so, the Founders promulgated the tenet of religious freedom as they set up the country’s framework. Alexander Hamilton cautioned perceptively in 1774: “Remember civil and religious liberty always go together: if the foundation of the one be sapped, the other will fall of course.” In the Virginia Legislature, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison worked tirelessly to pass the “Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom” in the early 1780s. Their accomplishment was a precursor to the first article of the Bill of Rights, which says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The importance of religious liberty is apparent throughout the Founders’ writings; that they placed it at the forefront of the Bill of Rights broadcasts the significance they placed on it.

Today, we see the meaning of religious liberty being distorted, ironically beginning with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. The RFRA was passed by Congress to preserve religious liberty after the unpopular U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Employment Division v. Smith (1990). The court ruled on the side of Oregon after the state refused to provide employment benefits to two Native Americans fired after testing positive for a psychoactive compound present in peyote. The defendants had used the illegal substance in a religious ceremony. The outrage over the ruling pushed Congress to enact the RFRA, with the support of groups across the political spectrum, including the American Civil Liberties Union. However, recent developments have caused concern over the direction of the law and its application with regard to civil liberties.

In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014), the Supreme Court ruled that, through the RFRA, businesses can deny their employees insurance coverage for contraception if the company objects on religious grounds and a “less restrictive” alternative exists. The owners of Hobby Lobby successfully argued that providing insurance for contraception to their female employees violated their religious liberty as Christians.

It is lamentable that, today in America, “religious liberty” is egregiously being used by companies worth billions of dollars to yank away basic rights from the American people. Unfortunately, the destruction of the wall between church and state continues elsewhere, as well. North Carolina’s discriminatory House Bill 2 and the rhetoric surrounding a “travel ban” on select countries indicate the political right’s cavalier disregard of this central principle, one that was emphasized by the Founding Fathers as key to the nation’s

If they were alive today, the Founders would certainly express pride that their democratic, republican experiment was a success. But their joy would promptly be replaced by shame upon learning that religious liberty — one of their most touted, beloved ideas — was being contorted into an implement of brash prejudice.

Isaac, 24, is a grad student at the University of Illinois-Chicago working on his master’s degree in bioengineering. He graduated from the University of North Carolina with a degree in biomedical and health sciences engineering. He hopes to become a doctor.

Freedom From Religion Foundation