Commentary: Our independence guarantees religious freedom

As we commemorate our nation's Independence Day, we should also celebrate our shared freedom of religion, which is bestowed upon each of us by the United States Constitution, and which is also reflected in the constitutions of all 50 states.

Notably, the opening line of the First Amendment states:

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

Significantly, our Founding Fathers saw fit to place this fundamental guarantee as the first provision contained within the Bill of Rights, thus clearly establishing religious freedom as our most primary civil liberty.

Axiomatic to the concept of religious liberty, of course, is the privilege of all persons to worship God according to the dictates of their own conscience, and to allow all other persons the same privilege.

As emphasized by Thomas Jefferson:

"Among the most inestimable of our blessings, also, is that ... of liberty to worship our creator in the way we think most agreeable to his will; a liberty deemed in other countries incompatible with good government and yet proved by our experience to be its best support."

As recently noted by William Galston, the former senior advisor to President Bill Clinton, who was instrumental in shepherding the Religious Freedom Restoration Act into federal law:

"Religious liberty belongs to no party, no ideology, no creed. It is our common property and shared inheritance."

By its essence, the concept of religious freedom embraces the divergence of our beliefs and respects our right to worship as we may choose.

Thus, we cannot legitimately insist on our own personal freedom of religion without simultaneously lobbying for the religious freedom of everyone else.

As Eleanor Roosevelt maintained: "Religious freedom cannot just mean Protestant freedom; it must be freedom of all religious people."

Critically, the only way that religious freedom can truly thrive is if each of us — regardless of political party, religious denomination or personal ideology — champions the rights of religious liberty for all peoples and all creeds.

This requires us to unite in the common defense of each other's respective religious freedom rights.

As urged by Cardinal Francis George:

"In the coming years, inter-religious coalitions formed to defend the rights of conscience for individuals and for religious institutions should become a vital bulwark against the tide of forces at work in our government and society to reduce religion to a purely private reality."

As we celebrate our freedoms this Independence Day, let us not only express gratitude for the religious liberties guaranteed to us by our Constitution, but let us also resolve to join with all other persons of faith to champion their religious freedom rights as well.

Attorney JEFFREY W. SHIELDS practices law in Irvine.

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