The following piece by Senator John Boozman (AR) and Congressman Randy Forbes (VA-04) was featured on National Review this month.
The Basic Right of a Free People
By John Boozman & J. Randy Forbes
“Religious freedom is no luxury, but is a basic right of a free people.” It is “one of the cornerstones of our democracy” and one of our country’s most “cherished traditions.”
These are the words of then-Representative Charles Schumer as he championed his bill, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), on the floor of the House in 1993.
The Supreme Court had struck a blow to religious freedom in 1993 in Employment Division v. Smith by lowering the standard of judicial review for government infringements on religious free exercise. In a rare show of robust bipartisanship, Congress responded by overwhelmingly passing RFRA. President Clinton observed on signing the law that “our Founders . . . knew that religion helps to give our people the character without which a democracy cannot survive.”
This month, the Supreme Court has a second shot at rectifying its decision in Smith — this time, with the aid of RFRA — when it considers two challenges to the HHS mandate, from Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood.
Few freedoms were more valuable to those who settled this nation than the freedom of conscience. The drafters of our Constitution understood that throughout history leaders in civil government, “being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others.”
The greatness of our Constitution lies in its design to protect a multiplicity of opinions from being silenced in favor of the agendas of the reigning governmental power. By passing RFRA, Congress ensured that the government could not limit the exercise of religious beliefs without clearing a significant hurdle: the burden of proving that the measure serves a compelling government interest and cannot be met through a less-restrictive method.
Freedom of conscience extends well beyond where a person worships. It encompasses a person’s whole being — who he is, how he acts, and the daily decisions he makes. It can include nothing less than the way a person lives all aspects of her life, from her private life to her public life and commercial conduct.
The First Amendment guarantees that we have freedom to live our lives according to our religious beliefs and moral convictions, free from government coercion. An individual does not abandon this freedom simply because he enters the stream of commerce. And yet, that is exactly what the administration is trying to force on businesses like Hobby Lobby and Conestoga under the HHS mandate.
The importance of protecting this standard is demonstrated by the more than 50 amicus briefs — nearly three times as many as filed by the opposition — in favor of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, from sources including 107 members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, who have urged the Supreme Court to strike down the HHS mandate as unconstitutional because the government cannot meet its required burden of proof under RFRA.
As a nation, we should insist that our laws should encourage and support, not penalize, citizens who seek to consistently adhere to their moral convictions. In the words of President Clinton, we must “respect one another’s faiths [and] fight to the death to preserve the rights of every American to practice whatever convictions he or she has.”
It is these rights that RFRA protects. It is this freedom that the Supreme Court must uphold, so that we each may live, as George Washington wrote, by “the little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”
During 2013, Members of the Congressional Prayer Caucus were at the forefront on initiatives to protect religious freedom in America and preserve our nation’s rich spiritual heritage. Members introduced legislation, wrote letters, and delivered remarks before many audiences supporting these fundamental principles. They called on executive agencies and officials in the military to preserve the freedom of people of faith to operate in a manner consistent with their religious beliefs. In addition, they continued meeting each week in the U.S. Capitol building to pray for our nation.
In the 2013 Year in Review, you will find specific actions taken by Members to:
Recognize the Importance of Faith in America’s Founding and Subsequent History
Defend the Right of Free Exercise of Religion
Protect Public Prayer
Preserve Religious Freedom for Servicemembers
Defend Against Attempts to Remove Religious Symbols from the Public Square
View the document online by clicking the image above or accessing it here.
Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler (MO-04) recently let Members in a special order hour, honoring the importance of religious freedom in the military. She was joined by Reps. Doug Collins (GA-09), John Fleming (LA-04), Doug LaMalfa (CA-01), Tim Huelskamp (KS-01), Doug Lamborn (CO-05), Alan Nunnelee (MS-01), Roger Williams (TX-25), Louie Gohmert (TX-01), Kerry Bentivolio (MI-11), and Randy Hultgren (IL-14). Congressman Randy Forbes (VA-04) submitted comments for the record, which may be viewed here. You can view the entire hour here.
“Faith has been important to the armed services and to people of this country from the beginning. And it is just as important now to our men and women in uniform as it was back at the beginning of our country,” stated in her opening remarks. “But yet their ability to express their religious beliefs is being attacked, from forces outside and forces within.”
There has been an increasing concern that about the ability of servicemembers to freely express their religious beliefs. These concerns wereheightened after President Obama called the conscience protections that Members included in the National Defense Authorization act “unnecessary and ill-advised.” Congress is currently considering a new provision to strengthen these conscience protections.
Echoing these concerns for religious freedom in the military, Congressman Randy Hultgren stated, “No one should be forced to choose between service to country and his or her faith. And we must ensure that men and women in uniform have the ability to practice that faith without fear of reprimand.”
Members of the Prayer Caucus will continue to ensure that servicemembers are not forced to leave their faith at home when they volunteer to serve.
The following piece by Reps. J. Randy Forbes (VA-04) and Steve Scalise (LA-01) was featured in Charisma this week.
Religious Freedom is a Sacred Right
Nov. 20, 2013
By Randy Forbes and Steve Scalise
Religious freedom is one of the founding principles of our great nation. Cemented in the First Amendment, the freedom to express our faith forms the very bedrock of our constitutional rights.
Though the Supreme Court has affirmed that legislative prayer is constitutional under the Establishment Clause, lower courts have for years been at odds over the proper standard by which state and municipal policies governing legislative prayer should be measured. This fall, the Supreme Court has the chance to set the record straight.
In 1983, the Supreme Court unequivocally upheld the practice of opening legislative sessions with prayer, citing an “unambiguous and unbroken history” of this tradition. For years, the town of Greece, N.Y., opened its board meetings with a prayer. That storied tradition is now in jeopardy.
Despite the fact that the town permitted anyone of any religious background to offer a prayer, including a Jewish man, a Baha'i leader, and a Wiccan priestess, the lower court ruled that the town’s method of offering prayers violated the Constitution. The Supreme Court will issue a decision in this case early next year. As members of Congress, we will not look the other way in the face of this challenge to such an important and historic tradition.
Washington lawmakers have a unique interest in the outcome of the case. For more than two centuries, Congress has opened its legislative sessions with prayer. It is a rich tradition that began with the First Continental Congress, even before the Revolution or the drafting of the Constitution.
If the Supreme Court upholds the lower court’s ruling, it will overrule the way in which Congress has opened its legislative sessions with prayer for centuries. That is why we led 85 members of Congress in an amicus brief urging the court to uphold the constitutional prerogative of elected bodies to pray before meetings.
Prayer provides a way for members of Congress to solemnize our proceedings and find unity in an environment often polarized by division and controversy. The importance of prayer transcends politics. This truth is reflected in the 26 amicus briefs that were filed in support of the town of Greece, including a bipartisan amicus brief filed by 34 members of the U.S. Senate and an amicus brief filed by the Obama administration.
People from all over the world seek the religious protections guaranteed by our Constitution. All Americans should be free to practice their religion, and the United States should remain a nation that is respectful and tolerant of those wishing to profess their faith in a public manner. It is vital that deliberative bodies from Congress to local municipal boards remain free to invite the rich tradition of prayer into their meetings without the constant threat of lawsuits.
Religious freedom is one of the pillars this great nation was founded upon. On our watch, we will not let that pillar collapse.
Congressman Randy Forbes represents Virginia's Fourth Congressional District and is the co-chairman of the Congressional Prayer Caucus. Congressman Steve Scalise represents Louisiana’s First Congressional District and is the chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a group of conservative lawmakers in the U.S. House.
Today, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Town of Greece v. Galloway, a case challenging the constitutionality of opening legislative sessions with prayer.
Eighty-five Members of the House of Representatives signed an amicus curiae brief with the Supreme Court in August, supporting the constitutional practice of legislatures opening their sessions with prayer. The brief points out that, though “Congress opens its daily sessions with legislative prayer, a practice that is fully consistent with the Establishment Clause,” this “longstanding prayer practice would fail under the tests promulgated by the Second Circuit in this case and the Fourth Circuit in previous cases.”
The Town of Greece has traditionally opened its public meetings with prayer. Anyone who wished to volunteer to pray was welcome, regardless of their religious affiliation. In 2008 however, Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed suit on behalf of two citizens who claimed the prayers were unconstitutional.
The Second Circuit overruled the district court’s decision upholding the prayers, holding that despite a highly inclusive prayer policy, public prayer before the town’s meetings was unconstitutional because too many of the prayers were Christian. The court based its decision on perception rather than policy, ignoring the fact that the town’s prayer policy allows any volunteer to provide a prayer before meetings, including individuals of no faith.
In response to today’s oral argument, Founder and Co-Chairman of the Congressional Prayer Caucus Congressman Forbes issued the following statement:
“Today the Supreme Court considered a vital question: under what circumstances may a legislative body begin its sessions with prayer? Our nation can trace the time-honored tradition of opening legislative sessions with prayer back to the First Continental Congress. However, today the Court was asked to make a radical, unwarranted departure from the Constitution. By asking the Court to uphold the Second Circuit’s opinion, the individuals challenging the town’s prayer practice asked the Court to dramatically expand the legal test for determining an unconstitutional prayer.
During oral argument, some of the Justices expressed concern over imposing too much government intervention in guiding the composition of prayers. Justice Scalia noted, “The people who are on the town board or serving in Congress are citizens. . . . It seems to me an imposition upon them to stifle the manner in which they invoke their deity.” The purpose of the Establishment Clause is not to sanitize public life of all vestiges of religion. Religious freedom is a fundamental human right—a right that is essential to the health and well-being of a democratic society. The Establishment Clause of the Constitution was designed by the Founding Fathers to prohibit the government from coercing citizens to adhere, or not adhere, to a certain belief; it is not a license to remove all religious references from the public square.”
A decision is expected early next year. Members of the Congressional Prayer Caucus will continue to defend legislative prayer and protect religious freedom in America.
Congressional Prayer Caucus member, Representative Doug Collins, sponsored a resolution in the House of Representatives on Saturday, October 5 to protect the First Amendment freedoms of our military servicemembers.
On Saturday, the House passed H.Con.Res. 58, a resolution expressing the sense of Congress of the need for continued availability of religious services to servicemembers and their families during the shutdown. The bill passed the House overwhelmingly by a vote of 400-1, however the Senate has not yet taken up this essential measure. The debate was led by Congressional Prayer Caucus member, Representative Joe Wilson, who chairs the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel.
Last week, it became apparent that these contract chaplains had been furloughed, and as furloughed employees they are not permitted to minister on base. Military bases that have no active duty priests and have been unable to secure a priest that is not a contract chaplain have indefinitely suspended Catholic services. However, a lapse in appropriations does not restrict the First Amendment rights of American citizens. Chaplains exist to facilitate the free exercise rights of our servicemembers, a role which is particularly crucial for servicemembers who do not have access to civilian priests or pastors. Contract chaplains must be permitted to continue their duties to ensure that members of the military may continue to exercise their First Amendment rights.
Representative Collins is a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force Reserves. You can see the video of his speech during debate on the bill here. Religious freedom is a fundamental human right, and members of the Congressional Prayer Caucus will continue to defend the free exercise rights of our men and women in uniform.
A New York federal district court has dismissed a challenge to the inclusion of our national motto, “In God We Trust,” on United States currency. Forty-one Members of the House of Representatives signed an amicus curiae brief in May supporting the motto.
In dismissing the case, the court stated: “The Supreme Court has repeatedly assumed the motto’s secular purpose and effect, and all circuit courts that have considered this issue—namely the Ninth, Fifth, Tenth, and D.C. Circuit— have found no constitutional violation in the motto’s inclusion on currency. . . . To [disregard those decisions] would be to disregard the dicta from the Supreme Court . . . . Taken together, they support only one conclusion: the inclusion of the motto on U.S. currency . . . does not violate the Establishment Clause.”
The brief the Prayer Caucus members signed articulated how “In God We Trust” is a reflection of the historical fact that America was founded on a belief in God and shows that courts have consistently upheld the constitutionality of the motto. “The Establishment Clause was never intended as a guarantee that a person will not be exposed to religion or religious symbols on public property, and the Supreme Court has rejected previous attempts to eradicate all symbols of this country’s religious heritage from the public’s view.”
On November 1, 2011, the House of Representatives passed H.Con.Res.13, a resolution reaffirming “In God We Trust” as the national motto and encouraging its display in public buildings and government institutions. The resolution passed by a vote of 396 to 9. Members of the Prayer Caucus will continue to ensure that evidence of our nation’s spiritual heritage is preserved in the public square.
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Congressman J. Randy Forbes, Founder
Congressman Mike McIntyre, Co-Chairman
For a complete list of Members of the Congressional
Prayer Caucus, click here.
Contact the Congressional Prayer Caucus Amy Vitale, Amy.Vitale@mail.house.gov