Baylor University President Ken Starr wrote a piece on the history of religious freedom in the U.S. and urged vigilance in protecting it at the blog of the Religious Freedom Project, which is a partnership between Catholic Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and Evangelical Baylor University.
With few exceptions, the Supreme Court had little experience with the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment in the first century of our nation’s existence. This is, in part, due to the express words of the amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It was not until the 1940s that the Court determined these two clauses should be“incorporated,” or act as limitations on states and not just the federal government. Now the Court would be permitted to reach religious oppression where it was more likely to occur—in the interplay between citizens and their state and local governments. (see Madison’s argument in Federalist 10).
One of the first times the Court exercised this new power was in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943). The Board had adopted a resolution requiring students to salute the flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Refusing to do so was considered “insubordination” worthy of expulsion. Parents of such children could be criminally prosecuted for causing delinquency. The appellants were Jehovah’s Witnesses who could not, in conscience, participate in the flag salute ceremony. The Court defended the students’ right, overturning their Gobitis decision from just three years prior. The Court wrote:
If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.
Starr concludes by arguing, “We must be willing to engage in this debate, being vigilant to defend our heritage of religious liberty.”
Read the entire post at the Religious Freedom Project’s blog.
The Cardinal Newman Society regularly covers updates on religious freedom and how it pertains to Catholic education news at its website Catholic Education Daily.
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