The Free Exercise Thereof: Freedom of Religion in the First Amendment

The Freedom of Religion clause in the First Amendment ensures that all U.S. citizens enjoy the right to worship the faith of their choosing; more importantly, it also gives them right not to worship any faith. The Freedom of Religion clause in the First Amendment represents one of the few official documents on the planet that corroborates free will, specifically, the right to choose, in the arena of religion.

The choice inferred by the words “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” …presupposes free will; this is why it is such a vital and valuable document, to the American people and to the world at large (“The Bill of Rights”).

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The right to choose religion does not simply mean that religion is not imposed. Credit the founding fathers with their comprehension that the individual choice upheld in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights extends its roots much deeper than legislated safeguard against religious tyranny. It means that religion itself can be chosen, or not chosen; Freedom of Religion means we can be free to not choose a faith at all.

The 9/11 bombers were not U.S. citizens, for example. For them, “choice” in religion appeared enough of an affront to the supreme rule of Allah that they felt justified in sacrificing their own lives, and murdering thousands of innocent souls. Infidels, after all, in the most painfully crude sense, are simply people who do not choose Allah. Americans have been sorely punished in recent years as a result of this amendment.

So, is it time to retire it? Can the U.S. finally accept that the experiment has failed? Absolutely not. If anything, now marks the time the First Amendment to the U.S. Bill of Rights’ religious freedom clause demands full and resolute support. Right now signifies the precise epoch wherein the U.S. must “be especially careful to give no ground on First Amendment issues” (Abrams 30).

For the purposes of this essay, let us focus on Islam, and the Ground Zero mosque. Given that practicing Islam in the U.S. persists as a hot button issue, let one thing be clear from the outset: this is not a polemic indicting the Muslim faith. In this paper, Islam will function metaphorically and contextually to demonstrate religious freedom in some cases, and lack thereof in others.

Islam contains one tenet, the moral law, which bears scrutiny in regards to a discussion of choice and free will, and provides a clear example of the relevance and importance of the Freedom of Clause in the Constitution. Islamic scholar Fazlur Rahman clarified that:

“the basic elan of the Qur’an is moral, whence flows its emphasis on monotheism as well as on social justice. The moral law is immutable: it is God’s “Command.” Man cannot make or unmake the Moral Law: he must submit himself to it, this submission to it being called islam and its implementation in life being called ibada or service to God” (Rahman 260).

For Muslims, the faith exists as a constant, stable force, one which the faithful respond to, less as an act of belief, but more so as a physical action. “The proper response…is not so much believing in the faith but responding to the faith. Islam, in this sense, is not so much a noun but a verb, an action” (Ball and Haque 316).

Borne on the label “God’s law,” Islam’s moral law then becomes ubiquitous and unassailable, an element that existed before humans, and one that, presumably, will outlive them; ultimately, Muslims have no say in the moral law’s ordinance. Muslims can quibble, argue, defy, or ignore the moral law, but by virtue of being alive on the planet, “God’s law” applies to them. Herein lies the import of the Freedom of Religion clause in the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights: choice.

The difficulty of “God’s law”, and this is true of all religions, not simply Islam, is the stubborn absence of the gods themselves. The business of interpretation, understanding, enforcing, and acting upon “God’s law” invariably falls to humans. Therefore, the moral law is always the human law, because humans alone decode it.

Until the gods themselves beam down and say, “No. I meant this,” it cannot be otherwise. Thus, one of the important values of the Freedom of Religion clause in the First Amendment of the Constitution, is the protection it offers to victims of the moral law’s interpretation, as in the case of honor killings (Hemmer 1). The First Amendment stands as a document that offers hope to those who suffer at the hands of any rigidly imposed faith, and provides a means to go beyond faith altogether, if that is an individual’s choice.

The U.S. holds a golden opportunity to unequivocally solidify the value of the First Amendment’s Freedom of Religion clause in the Ground Zero mosque debate. Vehement protest accompanies the idea to erect an Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero in Manhattan.

The offensiveness looks like this: Regardless of how it is intended, it will be perceived by radical Muslims around the world as a giant monument, in the heart of the beast itself, to their success in attacking America. Indeed, it will be perceived by many Americans that way. The funereal and memorial emotion that embraces one on a visit to the Ground Zero site will be weakened – poisoned, just a little – by the presence of this new, grand construction (Bottum 4).

However, a mosque at the Ground Zero location actually stands for the value of the Freedom of Religious clause in the First Amendment, because it embodies not a monument to 9/11 violence, but rather the enduring tolerance of the United States in the area of faith, as the founding fathers intended with the clause, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” (“The Bill of Rights”).

All faiths, including Islam, must remain free to practice their faith in the United States and this freedom must be visibly implemented, otherwise it makes a mockery of the Freedom of Religion clause.

President Obama echoed the importance of the Freedom of Religion clause in the First Amendment at a White House dinner: “This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are.” (Stolberg A1).

During the aftermath of 9/11, “worries about restrictions of religious expression by Muslims” existed, as well as “fears of governmental religious coercion, where patriotic sentiment could become conflated with religious symbols and expression” (Gellman 87). The value of the Freedom of Religion clause in the First Amendment, “protection of the one who disagrees with the majority, or who is different in some matter of ideology or belief,” becomes more significant in the Ground Zero mosque debate (Gellman 88).

Opponents of the mosque at Ground Zero may have forgotten, or lost sight of the larger picture. To block the erection of the Islamic cultural center there is tantamount not only to suppression of the rights of Muslims to worship their faith of choice in their region of choice, but also sets a dangerous precedent: that emotion trumps law.

Under no circumstances can the U.S. allow its Freedom of Religion clause in the First Amendment to fall prey to fear, paranoia, or wars of faith. In Obama’s words, “Al Qaeda’s cause is not Islam — it is a gross distortion of Islam…in fact, Al Qaeda has killed more Muslims than people of any other religion, and that list includes innocent Muslims who were killed on 9/11” (Stolberg A1).

The Ground Zero mosque must stand as a monument to all New Yorkers, indeed all Americans, be they Muslin, Christian, Zoroastrian, Buddhist, Taoist, Catholic, Mormon, agnostic, or atheist. The Ground Zero mosque represents all faiths, all colors of people, believers and non-believers, because they all live there. It has nothing to do with tolerance. It is a simple recognition of the reality of U.S. life: many souls, one nationality.

The Freedom of Religion clause in the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights will never be an easy clause to sustain. It is a clause which guarantees the rights of humans to choose to live either with or without “God’s Law,” and for some, particularly the terrorists behind 9/11 bombings, freedom to not choose a faith disturbs beyond rationality, and must be suppressed. However, the U.S. must always suppress suppression, in any form, even that which derives from its own citizens.

Emotions are necessarily unstable entities, and the vision of the founding fathers, “no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” must never be subsumed or interpreted by fear (“The Bill of Rights”). It is incumbent upon all Americans to do everything they can to uphold the Freedom of Religion clause in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. Their neighbors, and the rest of the world, count on it.

Works Cited

Abrams, Floyd. “Balancing Act: Holding the Line on the First Amendment.” Columbia Journalism Review 40.4 (2001): 30. Web. 1 Dec. 2010.

Ball, Carolyn, and Akhlaque Haque. “Diversity in Religious Practice: Implications of Islamic Values in the Public Workplace.” Public Personnel Management 32.3 (2003): 315-331. Web. 1 Dec. 2010.

Bottum, Joseph. “Holy War Over Ground Zero.” First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life 206 (2010): 3-4. Web. 1 Dec. 2010.

“Constitution of the United States: The Bill of Rights” Archives.gov. Archives.gov, n.d. Web. 2 Dec. 2010.

Gellman, Susan. “The First Amendment in a Time that Tries Men’s Souls.” Law and Contemporary Problems 65.2 (2002): 87-101. Web. 1 Dec. 2010.

Hemmer, Bill. “Fox News Reporting: Honor Killing in America.” Fox News. 13 August 2010. n.p. Web. 2 Dec. 2010

Rahman, Fazlur. “The Qur’an.” The World Treasury of Modern Religious Thought. Jaroslav Pelikan, ed. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1990. Print.

Stolberg, Sheryl Gay. “Obama Strongly Backs Islam Center Near 9/11 Site.” New York Times. 13 August 2010. A1. Web. 1 Dec. 2010.

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