This past Monday was officially recognized not just as Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but also as Religious Freedom Day. In 1993, Congress passed a resolution that directs the president to annually publicly declare January 16 as Religious Freedom Day, and that’s happened every year for the past 30 years.
Religious liberty protections in the United States were first established on January 16, 1786, when the Assembly in the Commonwealth of Virginia enacted into law the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Thomas Jefferson had drafted it in 1777 and introduced it into the Virginia Assembly in 1779. The statute, for lack of a better word, “disestablished” the Church of England in Virginia and guaranteed religious freedom to people of all religious faiths or of no faith.
These are the opening words of this statute:
“An act for establishing religious Freedom. Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free; That all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and therefore are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being Lord, both of body and mind yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do….”
I hope you are immediately struck by the references to Almighty God, Lord, “holy author,” and “Almighty power.” Yes, there was a day when elected officials were not afraid to invoke God in a powerful, direct way, even in lawmaking.
Jefferson included a lot of verbiage about the importance of such a statute and the necessity for it and then gets to the enactment portion, which reads:
“Be it enacted by General Assembly that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities. And though we well know that this Assembly elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of Legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding Assemblies constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare that the rights hereby asserted, are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right.” (Emphasis added.)
I hope you caught that last part because it is incredibly significant. Jefferson notes that future legislatures can override current legislation. Therefore, he notes that it would be of no effect to declare this act irrevocable.
He goes on to say that there is a law that is higher than manmade law, known as natural law. The right to hold and practice publicly and privately one’s religious beliefs is a natural right—in other words pre-existing human government, God-given. He says if a future legislature repeals the law the 1786 legislature passed or even made it narrower, then they will be infringing on a natural right. He wanted to be sure succeeding generations of elected officials understood the importance of natural law, in particular as it relates to religious freedom.
The original statute as passed in 1786 is still in Virginia’s statutes, and In 2016, the Virginia legislature reiterated its support for the original Religious Freedom Act.
One year later in 1787 when the constitutional convention convened, this Religious Freedom Statute became the foundation for what we know today as the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the US Constitution.
Jefferson and the vast majority of our founders understood that religious liberty is an unalienable, God-given natural right. Unfortunately, far too many government officials don’t understand this today.
Over the past several years, religious liberty has been under relentless attack, especially under the Biden administration.
Christian cake shop owner Jack Phillips and graphic designer Lorie Smith are fighting for their religious liberty in court, representing all artists and business owners. A district court of appeals and the Supreme Court will soon weigh in on these monumental cases.
President Biden’s so-called Inflation Reduction Act, which was signed into law last August, expanded taxpayer funded abortion, a clear violation of Americans’ religious liberty and conscience rights.
Of course, the so-called Respect for Marriage Act, which was recently signed into law, undermines the religious liberty of those who hold a biblical view of marriage. These are just a few of many recent examples.
If religious liberty prevails it won’t be because of our politicians, but because of our parents and pastors. So in honor of Religious Freedom Day, take time to talk about this Congressionally designated day and what it means to someone in your life who is 25 or younger. Ask if they know about this day. Inquire about what they know and think about religious freedom. Take some time to inform and encourage at least one person in the younger generation to understand what religious freedom is and isn’t, and what Religious Freedom Day is about. To preserve this freedom that our founders called our First Freedom because it is foundational to all other freedoms, we are going to have to take seriously our personal responsibility to teach and defend this incredible liberty.
Colorado is trying to force a Christian business owner to create (and thereby, endorse) a message that she disagrees with, but Lorie Smith is fighting back. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments for Smith’s case, 303 Creative v. Elenis, on Monday, December 5, and we are hopeful the high court will uphold her free speech and religious liberty rights.
Smith designs websites for weddings as long as they align with her belief that marriage is a union of one man and one woman. However, the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act wrongfully forces her to create websites for same-sex marriages. Smith is willing to serve customers regardless of their sexual orientation; she simply refuses to celebrate an unbiblical view of marriage, as is her right.
The hearing lasted for over two hours, and the court debated several questions regarding line-drawing. For example, was Smith’s refusal to create websites for same-sex marriages based on the message of the website or the sexual orientation of the couple? Was her refusal an expression of speech, and therefore protected by the First Amendment, or of conduct?
The left-leaning justices led the questioning of Alliance Defending Freedom’s Kristen Waggoner, who is representing Smith. The justices clearly believed Smith was denying the couple her services based on status.
Justice Elena Kagan asked Brian Fletcher, an attorney representing the state of Colorado, what could happen if the court rules in Smith’s favor. Fletcher argued that the court could allow racial discrimination if it upholds Smith’s right to free speech. He pointed to the Supreme Court’s decision in Runyon v. McCrary, a case in which a private school’s admission policy discriminated against black children. However, this comparison is irrelevant. The court’s decision in Runyon v. McCrary did not involve freedom of speech, and the skin color of a teacher’s students wouldn’t change his pro-segregation message.
Thankfully, the conservative justices seemed to lean in the opposite direction. In a debate with Colorado Solicitor General Eric Olson, Justice Neil Gorsuch referenced Colorado’s treatment of Jack Phillips, who was the subject of a very similar case, as forcing him into a “re-education program.”
Waggoner argued that Smith isn’t just selling a service and engaging in conduct, but is conveying a message with her website designs. She highlighted the fact that the Supreme Court has refused to force someone to convey a message that violates his or her beliefs time and time again in the past.
She asserted that Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Group of Boston should govern Smith’s case. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that Massachusetts could not require the St. Patrick’s Day parade organizers to allow an LGBTQ group to participate in the march. Similarly, the government cannot force Smith to celebrate an LGBTQ relationship.
Colorado Solicitor General Eric Olson retorted by pointing to Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights (FAIR), in which the Supreme Court ruled that a law withholding federal funding from colleges that restricted military recruiters’ access to students did not violate the First Amendment. He argued that the FAIR ruling “regulates conduct, not speech” because it set guidelines for what the schools could do rather than what they could say.
Chief Justice John Roberts pushed back on Fletcher’s reliance on FAIR, rightfully stating that the case involved a completely different type of compulsion than the forced speech in Smith’s case.
Then Justice Amy Barrett presented several hypotheticals about other types of marriages or situations that might violate Smith’s beliefs, such as heterosexual marriages that began as adulterous relationships. Waggoner said that Smith would not create websites for those couples either, proving that her refusal is based on the message the website sends, not the status or sexual orientation of the couple.
Justice Barrett noted that Smith says on her website that she fully customizes “the look, feel, theme, message, color palettes, et cetera” of each website she designs.
Gorsuch then voiced the critical distinction of this case, saying, “So, the question isn’t who, it’s what?” Waggoner agreed. This is the question that this case hinges on, and our conservative justices seem to be on the right track.
WFA joined with other pro-religious freedom organizations to file a friend-of-the-court brief before the U.S. Supreme Court in support of Lorie Smith. We are hopeful the conservative justices (which comprise a majority) on the court vote in favor of free speech and religious liberty, as they seem poised to.
If the government can compel Lorie to create a message she disagrees with, it can do the same to any of us. Please pray the high court upholds our First Amendment rights.
Christian cake shop owner Jack Phillips and graphic designer Lorie Smith are fighting for their First Amendment rights in court. Hopefully their cases will reaffirm the right of every American to live or run a business according to their deeply held beliefs without fear or retribution.
In 2018 the U.S. Supreme Court heard Phillips’ case after a couple sued the baker for refusing to bake them a cake celebrating their same-sex wedding. The court ruled in Phillips’ favor and found that the state of Colorado had discriminated against him.
However, before the court gave its ruling, another complaint was filed against Phillips, this time for refusing to bake a cake celebrating a gender transition.
On the same day that the Supreme Court announced it would hear Phillips’ original case, Colorado lawyer Autumn Scardina called Phillips’ bakery to ask for a cake celebrating his transition from male to female. Scardina admitted that he only wanted to “challenge the veracity” of Phillips’ claim that he would serve LGBT people. Phillips’ family told Scardina they could not make the cake because the message it conveyed contradicted their personal beliefs.
Phillips has frequently served LGBT customers. He is not discriminating against the customers themselves. He simply refuses to make cakes with messages that contradict his religious beliefs such as Halloween cakes, sexually explicit cakes, and demeaning cakes, as is his God-given right.
A district court ruled against Phillips in this case, but Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys appealed the decision to the Colorado Court of Appeals.
ADF Senior Counsel Jake Warner says, “No one should be forced to express a message that violates their beliefs and conscience. Activists and state laws have threatened artists like Jack and graphic artist Lorie Smith because they can’t express messages on marriage and gender that violate their core beliefs. In this case, an activist attorney demanded that Jack create expressive cakes to test him and ‘correct the errors’ of his thinking. The attorney even promised to sue Jack again if the case is dismissed for any reason. Free speech is for everyone. The Constitution protects the freedom of every American to express ideas even if the government disagrees with those ideas.”
Warner is absolutely right. Phillips is completely within his rights to refuse to serve a same-sex wedding or bake a cake with an anti-Christian message. Hopefully, the Colorado Court of Appeals makes a decision informed by the Constitution.
In Jack’s first case, the US Supreme Court granted Phillips a partial victory, but failed to address the heart of the issue: Does the Constitution protect freedom of speech and the freedom not to speak, as well as religious freedom, or does the LGBTQ agenda trump those rights?
The good news is that the high court has a case this session similar to Jack’s, giving them another opportunity to get this issue right. Lorie Smith, a Christian graphic designer, is challenging the same law that brought Phillips to the Supreme Court.
Smith designs websites for weddings as long as they align with her belief that marriage is a union of one man and one woman. However, the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act forces her to create websites for same-sex marriages.
This is an opportunity for the Supreme Court to affirm every artist and business owner’s right to refuse to send a message they don’t agree with. Let’s pray the court gets it right this time.
Even WFA has been denied graphic design services more than once because of who we are and what we believe- even by vendors who say they are Christians. While we could sue, we never have, because as Christians, we really do believe business owners should have the right to refuse any business they wish.
At the core of human dignity is our right to live in accordance with our deeply held beliefs. No one has the right to an artist’s services. Only the artist has the right to determine which services he or she will provide. While this First Amendment right is under severe and constant attack, Phillips and Smith’s cases give us a chance to realign the law with the Constitution and prevent more unwarranted complaints against Christian business owners.