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home : opinion : opinion May 23, 2016

4/2/2014 10:22:00 PM
Keeping faith in our Constitution
Bill Forhan

Robin Frazier of Carroll County in Maryland defied a court order last week not to invoke the name of Jesus in an opening prayer at county commissioners' meetings. Frazier said, "If we cease to believe our rights came from God we cease to be America."
The latest battle over freedom of religion was sparked by a lawsuit from local residents who took issue last spring with the board of commissioners' decision to open their public meetings with a prayer.
Decades of church vs. state cases have been decided on the basis that prayer in the public square is a violation of the establishment clause of the Constitution. But Frazier and the commissioners of Carroll County argue they are praying in their capacity as individual Americans and that telling them they can't pray is a violation of their free speech rights.
"I am willing to go to jail," said Frazier. And in violation of a court issued injunction telling the commissioners they could pray only as long as they didn't use the words "Jesus, Lord or savior," Frazier read a prayer by George Washington that used all of those words.
At the same time the Carroll County commissioners' case is being fought in Maryland, the Supreme Court is hearing the Hobby Lobby case. In that case, the Green Family, devout Christians and owners of Hobby Lobby, have refused to comply with the affordable care act saying the inclusion of certain contraceptive drugs in the government mandated health care program is a violation of their personal beliefs.
The Obama Administration is arguing that allowing Hobby Lobby to opt out of the program is a breach of the individual rights of its employees. According to the government's theory refusing to pay for contraceptives the Hobby Lobby owners find objectionable is a violation of a woman's right to choose.
Hobby Lobby's owners are not objecting to all birth control coverage only to those they believe work by causing abortion of a fertilized egg. And of course, arguing that their refusal to be part of a process they find morally objectionable somehow limits the individual choice of their employees is absurd. Nothing prevents those employees from going to the corner drug store and purchasing those drugs on their own.
The first amendment guarantees of religious freedom are very straightforward: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."
The first part, referred to as the establishment clause, prohibits the government from promoting or creating an officially sanctioned religion to the exclusion of other expressions of faith. The second part, often called the free exercise clause, reinforces that religious institutions shall be free to exercise their faith free of government interference.
The first amendment has been one of the most litigated sections of the US Constitution. Cases have been decided for and against protecting religious freedom almost from the beginning of this country. This section of the Constitution has seen fights over polygamy, school funding, discrimination, and free speech.
It has been argued that application of the First Amendment can trump the power of the government's ability to make laws - precisely. In 2010 the Beckett Fund - the same group defending the Greens, won a case in the 9th Circuit Court, the most liberal court in the country, on the issue of including the phrase "under God" in the pledge of allegiance. The court agreed with the Becket Fund that the phrase "under God" affirms the Founding Father's political philosophy and the foundational premise in the American tradition of law and rights, namely that "God granted certain inalienable rights to the people which the government cannot take away."
Many progressives claim that the Green family's religious freedoms are not being challenged here because it is their corporation that is trying to avoid paying for their employees' contraceptive choices. It's an argument that runs counter to the recent decision by the Supremes in the Citizens United case.
There is no way to know how the Supremes will rule on this most recent case. But it is clear those who value the Constitution can continue to have hope as long as people of faith and religious institutions are willing to stand up and challenge progressive attempts to re-write that outdated contract with the American people.

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