President Obama marked Religious Freedom Day earlier this month by framing religious liberty as “the freedom to worship as we choose.” If the president had not been restricting and attacking religious freedom so egregiously, he might merit a pass for using “freedom to worship” as poor shorthand for religious liberty.
The First Amendment of our Constitution actually reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The constitutionally guaranteed free exercise of religion in America extends well beyond the freedom to worship. It includes the freedom to live out our conscientiously held beliefs.
Worship at its core is essentially a private and personal process, a communion between God and an individual. No government could restrict such worship, any more than it could monitor and censor every citizen’s thoughts and prayers. Even forbidding individuals to worship together in public, which coercive communist governments like China’s have done, cannot actually prevent individuals from worshiping God in private. So a law that merely protected the freedom to worship would hardly be worth heralding in a presidential proclamation.
The free exercise of religion under the American Constitution, by contrast, includes the freedom to openly express, follow and live out our faith — not just in private but also in the public square — without government coercion, censorship or any other form of restriction.
The concept of religious liberty held by the Constitution’s framers included not merely the freedom to worship, but also the free exercise of conscience — carrying out one’s moral beliefs with conviction and action.
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