Column: Freedom of, and from, religion in West Virginia

The West Virginia State Capitol building in Charleston, West Virginia. (Jimmy Emerson, DVM/Creative Commons)

The First Amendment to the Constitution states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” This clause protects Americans from having their religious or areligious views infringed upon by either the state, or the tyranny of the majority. Fringe conservatives often forget the nature of this protection. In a myopic state of confusion and ill will, they portray themselves as the victim of some heathen threat.

In West Virginia, members of the state legislature are attempting to pass SB 11, the West Virginia Freedom of Conscience Protection Act, which relies on legalese to void the state’s ability to punish an individual for a crime committed, or duty ignored, in the name of religion. Freedom of religion equates freedom from religion and religious law, a point these drones have forgotten. 

In Federalist Paper No. 10, James Madison (who also penned the First Amendment), presents a hallowed argument against factionalism, specifically referencing religious fanatics as a concern. Madison cited a “zeal for different opinions concerning religion” as a key factor in the “propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities.”

The text of SB 11 reeks with the fumes of theocratic thinking. The bill seeks to ensure that “in all cases where state action burdens the exercise of religion, strict scrutiny is applied; to provide a claim or defense to a person or persons whose exercise of religion is burdened by state action.”

Such words are not necessarily damning; however, subsequent addendums reveal a spectacularly flawed mindset, defining burden in the context of SB 11 as "any action by the state or one of its political subdivisions with respect to withholding benefits, assessing criminal, civil or administrative penalties or damages, or enforcing a statute, regulation or ordinance, or exclusion from governmental programs or access to governmental facilities.”

As highlighted by Dahlia Lithwick of Slate, this language means religious liberties and civil rights would supersede all other civil rights in matters of West Virginia law if SB 11 is passed. This bill cannot be allowed to pass out of sight as yet another instance of the Evangelical silent majority wielding unbalanced power over their fellow citizens.

Placing religious views above all other civil liberties would mean individuals like Kim Davis, the county clerk from Kentucky who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, would be granted a free pass from their duties. It would mean that members of the Klu Klux Klan could have an edge in court over a frightened community, so long as they highlight their flaming cross in submitted court testimony. 

This nation relies on the principle of religious freedom. We have the right to worship any god(s), while also maintaining the inalienable right to live under secular law. We also maintain the right to live individual lives separate from the extralegal parameters of any one religion or religious sect.

Placing religious liberties above all other civil liberties violates this principle. West Virginia is threatening the sanctity of their state law by even considering such biased and backwards legislation. We have the right to worship wherever we choose; however, hijacking a state legislature in order to fight a paper tiger and violate civil liberties disturbs and destroys the very roots and earth upon which the Constitution stands. 

There is a tendency for conservative Christians to rely on historical revisionism when discussing religious freedoms. The drafters of the Constitution meant for the Establishment Clause and discussion of religious freedom to ensure that no sect could wield undue authority. In his 1790 letter to the Touro Synagogue of Newport, President Washington argued “the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance…”

Those who place a crisp copy of the Bill of Rights under their pillow at night must remember the meaning of the words written, not the bastardized version of those words they have come to spew in the modern times. The war waged by these individuals is not just, adopting a skewed mentality to promote a message of victimization.

An individual’s decision to marry the person they love, to use contraceptives or to control their own body does not infringe upon another individual’s religious freedom; it preserves the sanctity of the First Amendment and the protections created.

Theocratic loopholes designed for the purpose of fighting some imagined tyranny are themselves tyrannical.


Christopher Sacco is opinion editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at christopher.sacco@uconn.edu.