| June 27, 2012

Americans, Oklahomans defending religious freedom

A renewed appreciation for religious freedom is spreading across the country in the form of a movement called the “Fortnight for Freedom.” It is not aimed at advancing any particular denomination, but instead defends religious freedom for all Americans. The “Fortnight for Freedom” is a grassroots opportunity for Americans to celebrate and defend our First Amendment and its most important component, religious liberty.

Our Founders recognized that one of the unalienable rights bestowed upon us by our Creator is religious liberty. One might argue the Founders believed religious liberty is our most important right since they chose to recognize it in the first clause of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. It is clear today that religious freedom is the bedrock of our American society. When government attempts to infringe upon it, Americans fight back because they know the repercussions will be great if they don’t.

According to Ryan Messmore of the Heritage Foundation, the “Fortnight for Freedom” was initiated in response to recent policy actions of the Obama Administration (most notably the Obamacare anti-conscience mandate) “that have undermined religious freedom in a striking and unprecedented way.” Media reports indicate that while these policies predominantly affect the Catholic Church, their impact also upsets the balance of religious liberty across the board. People of many different faiths have joined together to oppose the mandate. When government targets and infringes upon any one particular denomination, it undermines religious freedom for all.

We are extremely fortunate. Americans exercise religious liberty far more often than we are called upon to defend it. Most Oklahomans support religious freedom and believe it is recognized and widespread in our state. However, many would be shocked to learn that a clause in our state constitution runs counter to this belief.

Our constitution includes something found in many other state constitutions referred to as a “Blaine Amendment.” When religious prejudice was rife during the 19th and early 20th century, “Blaine Amendments” were adopted to target the Catholic Church by prohibiting the use of state funds at “sectarian” schools. The term “sectarian” has been recognized as a code word for Roman Catholic. The United States Supreme Court acknowledged the anti-Catholic bigotry responsible for these “Blaine Amendments” and stated its disapproval in the plurality decision of Mitchell v. Helms in 2000, and again in Locke v. Davey in 2004.

Remember the principle: When government targets and infringes upon any one particular denomination, religious freedom for every other faith is undermined.

The Oklahoma version of the “Blaine Amendment” has recently been used to attack the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship Program which provides scholarships for special-needs children. On its face, the program does not support any particular denomination and in fact does not really support religion at all. Parents may send their children to schools of their choice using the scholarship. However, because some chose to apply the scholarship to send their children to religiously-affiliated schools, the entire program was struck down by a district court judge.

Unless the Oklahoma Supreme Court overturns the district court ruling in this case, an outdated amendment based on anti-Catholic bigotry will be cited to strike down a duly enacted law. This law, enacted with bipartisan support, allows children with special needs to receive an education tailored to their needs at a school of their parents’ choice. If such a bill can be struck down because of an amendment motivated by prejudice toward one religion, we must ask how much religious freedom we really have in Oklahoma.

Like the Obama Administration’s anti-conscience mandate, the Oklahoma “Blaine Amendment” seriously infringes on our First Amendment free exercise of religion guarantee. Oklahomans who value and want to protect their religious freedom should join the cause of “Fortnight for Freedom.”

OCPA intern James Hall is a law student at the University of Virginia.

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