The American Founders viewed freedom of religion as an important part of society, and for this reason enshrined it in the very first amendment of the Bill of Rights.
With regards to religion, the 1st Amendment does two things. First, it prevents the government from showing favoritism to a certain set of religious beliefs. Second, it bars Congress from preventing individuals from choosing their own religious beliefs and freely practicing them.
The 1st Amendment is used by both the religious and the non-religious to claim support. But could the law ever be so misinterpreted as to hinder the practice of religion it was supposed to protect? Already differing opinions suggest the possibility.
Many religiously-minded individuals naturally place more emphasis on the Free Exercise Clause. With the abolition of school prayer, the religiously-charged contraception mandate under Obamacare, and the gradual disappearance of religious symbols like 10 Commandment monuments, this group feels that free exercise of religion is being threatened. They tend to argue that the Establishment Clause was meant to protect individuals from being forced to support an established state church, but not intended to abolish religion from the public square wholesale. As proof of this, supporters point to the many statements by America’s Founders calling for public prayer and thanksgiving, and stressing the need for religion to ensure the survival of the nation.
Those in the more non-religious camp, however, tend to emphasize the Establishment Clause. They believe, as Justice Black once stated, that “a union of government and religion tends to destroy government and to degrade religion.” They also look to the Founders for justification, suggesting that leaders such as Thomas Paine, Ben Franklin, and others were merely Deists or even Atheists, or at the very least sought to promote reason over faith.
Are the 1st Amendment’s protections of religious freedom more and more misinterpreted these days? In consequence, are they losing force? If so, how will this affect the country in general, and Mississippi, which has regularly been found to be the most religious state in the union, in particular?