When the Federal Government Goes Too Far

Free speech and religious freedom are under fire

By-Robert B. Charles

Strange how the world turns, and how, in this turning world, precepts embodied in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, again and again, turn out to be the “still point.” Strange, too, how a few key rights preserve us, reaffirm what the Founders expected of us, what we should expect of each other and what we should expect — and not expect — of the federal government.

Take the rights of free speech and free exercise of religion, cornerstones of the Bill of Rights. Today, in one way or another, both rights are under fire. The federal government encroaches more on them each day, and average Americans wonder what is next. The political right blames the political left for government overreach; meantime, the left blames the right for indifference. The left implicitly trusts government to know what is best, while the right implicitly distrusts the government, as our Founders did, in favor of individuals enlightened by their own moral compass. Wherever you fall on that continuum, these two freedoms must remain untouched, unencumbered, unencroached upon by government. Here is why.

Two historical examples, seldom discussed, make the point. The first is Henry David Thoreau. The second is religion’s role in ending slavery. Celebrated by left-leaning environmentalists, Thoreau is a figure who, in his day, led the cause of appreciation for America’s grand, incomparable wild. His seminal 1854 book, “Walden,” describes his two-year seclusion in nature, where he learned self-reliance, simplicity and conservation. This book, supplemented by others, such as “The Maine Woods,” kicked off a new awareness by Americans of nature.

OK, fair enough. Now look at the role of the First Amendment. Look at how this American thought leader, lofted to defend environmental regulation and encroachment on property rights, might have fared. Beyond appreciation of nature, Thoreau defied interference by government in his life. Today, he would probably be shocked to see the level of government encroachment on individual liberties.

Thoreau’s 1849 essay, “Resistance to Civil Government,” and his assertion of free speech to defy the government on selected taxes, would put him behind bars for years in today’s America. In 1849, it landed him there for one day. Had he faced a modern prison term for exercising his free speech, he would never have spent the next two years at Walden Pond or written the very book environmentalists now revere. In short, had his First Amendment rights been amputated, as they might be today, Thoreau’s celebration of the environment would never have been written.

Today, the individual’s right to live by a moral code defined by his free exercise of religion is being pummeled by government. Nowhere is religion, particularly Christianity, more accosted than by self-described leftists, those who seek out ways to impugn faith in the name of atheism, secularism, humanism and agnosticism. So, here is the irony. Without an open, free and unrestricted right to worship, without an ability to compel government to respect that right, the rise of anti-slavery and abolitionism, would have been impeded. This call to freedom began in America’s pulpits, and from there abolitionism took wing. That is why “men of the cloth” had to stand their ground; they were often prosecuted by government. Thus, the Rev. Jacob Gruber, of Maryland, was prosecuted for sermons on faith and freedom, and the Rev. Jarvis Bacon, of Virginia, was similarly prosecuted. In Louisiana, the linkage of faith and freedom from “the pulpit” was punishable by death.

So, there it is, the importance of unrestricted freedom to religious faith, a central force that preserves morality, freedom and equality. No wonder even congressmen rose to defend free exercise of religion. In the middle of the 19th century, Rep. Owen Lovejoy, Illinois Republican, for example, boldly condemned laws that “imprison or exile preachers of the Gospel,” noting that words from the pulpit are among “the privileges and immunities of the Constitution which guarantees to me free speech.” Unrestricted freedom to worship in accord with individual belief accelerated the society’s movement toward wider freedom.

All this would be airy and irrelevant, if not for very recent decisions by the federal government that erode, erase and encroach — yet again — on our free speech and worship. While there are well-established limits, there is absolutely no place in a society grounded in these rights for prosecution or harassment, condemnation, limitation or isolation of those who revere these two constitutional rights, to free speech and exercise of religion.

Unless we want to disavow Thoreau’s wisdom and the moral righteousness of abolitionism, we can hardly afford now to walk back these sacred rights. If we still think integrity matters and hypocrisy is to be avoided, take a breath. Let’s try to be more patient with each other, and all of us less reliant on the government to guide us. What government snuffs out for one today, it can snuff for all tomorrow. That is not our America. As the world turns, the still point remains — our Constitution. Let’s not be afraid to know its history, and to say so.


This editorial first appeared in the Washington Times

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Walt Kachanis
6 years ago

A truth often overlooked is that the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and even the Declaration of Independence all stand because the 2nd Amendment is there. I believe it was Thomas Jefferson who said “The beauty of the 2nd amendment is that it will not be needed until they try to take it”. The sad point is the liberals, progressives and their ilk don’t realize what would happen if they did manage to remove the 2nd amendment

Darrell Bach
7 years ago

In the Fall 2014 Amac Advantage magazine Sound Off section Sam Whitehead comments on an earlier Sound Off by Robert Baker relative to the “separation of church and state” concept. Nationally, much is written and discussed about “separation of church and state” to the extent that it seems people believe those words appear in the 1st Amendment and that that is what the writers intended.

The 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

1. Where in the above narrative does it say that religious principles should not be practiced within our government?

Answer: It doesn’t! It says a law should not be made respecting an establishment of religion.

2. How does a posting of the 10 Commandments in public places, in schools or on government buildings infringe on 1st Amendment rights?

Answer: It doesn’t! Such postings suggest a set of moral standards we have lived by and our country was obviously founded on, but again it does not create a law respecting an establishment of religion. There have always been people who used the 10 Commandments as a guide to live by and those that haven’t. Those that haven’t weren’t necessarily prosecuted because they didn’t break any of man’s laws. Some laws were obviously based on the 10 Commandments and where they were also translated in man’s law caused some to be prosecuted.

3. How does displaying a cross on public property, buildings, or on your being infringe on 1st Amendment rights or offend somebody?

Answer: It doesn’t! Again, no law respecting religion was created by this activity. Relative to being offended, I am offended by today’s restrictions to not display crosses, which infringe on my free exercise of my religion.

Why are we letting a minority of the population (atheists) drive government and judicial decisions? As far as I can tell, Congress has still not made a law establishing a religion, but judicial rulings (laws created through interpretation) over the years has certainly prohibited the free exercise of religion for many.

8 years ago

Here’s an example of “free speech” under Obama’s rule. After inviting Dr. Ben Carson to speak at a White House breakfast, 4-5 years ago, I guess King Obama didn’t appreciate Dr. Carson’s comments on being against the PC Police (meaning Political Correctness), because soon after that, Dr. Carson was IRS audited, not once, but for three years running. Whereas, he was never audited ever before this.

Nobody has explained to me why Obama added 16,000 attorneys to the IRS, after Obamacare was passed. The IRS does tax audits, doesn’t it? Attorneys harass, intimidate and threaten, is that why the IRS needed attorneys instead of accountants?

Can someone also tell me, if I am audited by the IRS, can I demand to see their credentials and demand to deal with only an accountant rather than an attorney?

As for religion, every politician, including this president, who claims to be a Christian … Why is it they never attend Sunday worship services on a regular basis? Actions speak louder than words, abortion, gay rights and trying to enforce laws contrary to one’s religious beliefs, these are not actions of “true” Christians … They all need to be called out and challenged on their so-called religious beliefs. Politicians who “claim” to be Christian, only do so to get Christians to vote for them! Maybe, we should start calling them “CHRINOS” … Christians in name only!

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