Is America really the land of the free?

 Its position as the very First Amendment within the Bill of Rights offers insight into its relative importance amongst various individual liberties. It is analogous to the relative importance God placed on the first of His Ten Commandments to a young Hebrew nation. Moreover, the fact that our founding fathers could not gather ample support to ratify the U.S. Constitution without also adopting the Bill of Rights, further entrenches religious freedom as a cornerstone of our democracy.

As Christians, we know Christ as the cornerstone and author of life. As such, we also recognize why a fallen world opposes Him. Similarly, our religious freedoms are too often opposed today by those who want to characterize our faith as bigotry; compassion as selective; and tolerance as non-existent. As Shakespeare wrote in his play, Hamlet: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks” − implying that those making these accusations against religious freedom may very well have themselves in mind when doing so.

In New Jersey, challenges to our religious freedoms have been mounting and are evident within the state’s judicial system. Late last year, in a case still pending, retired police officer David Wells was arrested in the Monmouth Mall and charged with defiant trespassing for engaging mall patrons in conversations regarding salvation. This occurred despite legal precedent characterizing shopping malls as “public” environments, along with the fact that participants freely opted to engage in these discussions. There were no signs, disruption to mall traffic, or loud bullhorns; it was simply a discussion amongst willing participants.

In early 2012, a state administrative law judge ruled the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, a Methodist shore community, violated the state’s law against discrimination when it denied a lesbian couple’s application to use its boardwalk pavilion for a wedding ceremony. To avoid losing its tax exempt status and being forced to accommodate a ceremony in conflict with its religious beliefs, the association stopped use of its pavilion for all weddings.

We can see the hostility toward religious freedom through the inconsistency of these two unrelated cases. In one, the plaintiff argued a privately-owned boardwalk pavilion must be made available for rent to all public members, whereas in the other, faith-based dialogue within a legally defined public space was considered defiant trespassing.

Thankfully, the broader legal battle is not one-sided and there are well-resourced organizations leading the defense of our religious freedoms. Alliance Defending Freedom is one prime example, having recently led the defense in a landmark case, Town of Greece, New York v. Galloway, whereby the Supreme Court of the United States affirmed civic prayer as a constitutional practice. Importantly, this decision is anticipated to play a significant role in another Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) legal battle on behalf of an inner-city church, the Bronx Household of Faith v. the Board of Education of the City of New York. ADF is hopeful that the recent Supreme Court affirmation of civic prayer as a constitutional practice will help secure a legal victory for the Bronx Household of Faith and other churches currently renting New York City public schools on Sunday for worship services.

The case has been in the courts for 20 years. In the most recent ruling, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the school’s policy excluding religious worship was constitutional. However, because NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio supports the churches’ equal access rights, it’s unlikely that evictions will occur during his tenure.

The New Jersey Family Policy Council is another organization advancing religious freedoms as part of its broader mission to stand for traditional values. Len Deo is executive director of this council and has addressed the topic of religious freedom on numerous occasions. In a recent article, Mr. Deo wrote, “Religious freedom is intrinsically linked to our freedom as individuals, as well as our country’s founding and laws. It is a most treasured right that must be protected above all if a society is to remain free. The free exercise of religion guaranteed in the Bill of Rights means the right to live according to one’s own faith, manifesting that religion or belief in practice, both in public or private, without interference from the state.”

The stakes are clearly high, and not just for each individual, but our society at large. Numerous studies show religious freedom correlates directly with more civil, stable, and economically prosperous societies. And other human rights, such as freedom of speech, press, and assembly, also flourish where religious freedom is high. Perhaps most importantly, throughout communities all across our nation, religious freedom has often translated into an increased prevalence of charitable organizations either serving the public, generally, or the poor, more specifically. This has resulted in a rich history of generosity and volunteerism that is unmatched in the world.

John Adams, one of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence, wrote that Independence Day “will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty.” Adams recognized religious freedom then as the cornerstone of our democracy, and it remains so today, the common thread which sews together our country’s history.

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