MANZO COLUMN: Freedom of religion | Opinion

At present some Native American tribes legally use peyote in their rituals. During Prohibition, many churches were still able to use wine during their religious services. In West Virginia it is still legal to have snake handling as a part of worship. There are naturalist Christians that have worship services where people wear nothing. People like to talk a great deal about religious liberty and we, in the United States, have an abundance of religious liberty. Many clamor that they don’t have enough religious liberty but I’m not sure they have credible arguments.

The United States Constitution doesn’t actually say a whole lot other than the brief words, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” It’s interesting how these words were interpreted by the early founders of the nation.

In 1790 President George Washington visited Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. The people of the synagogue, from what we understand, were working to build a tunnel; an escape route from the synagogue because they feared that troops would one day come and violently force them to stop practicing their Jewish faith. Washington was distressed by their fear and wrote a letter to them which said:

“May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants — while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.” His words meant, quite clearly, that everyone was free to practice their own faith as they so desired. Or, as many would agree, not practice any faith. We are free to practice or not practice faith or believe or not believe in a divine being.

In 1802 President Thomas Jefferson, wrote to members of the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut stating that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution created a “wall of separation” between church and state. The way this has been interpreted is that churches may discuss and advocate for political issues but not particular parties or candidates and that the government may not tell churches how they could go about the practice of faith. Having served in a pastoral role in churches for over 40 years of my life this has been my experience. Religious people have a massive amount of freedom.

Clergy were often lumped together with physicians and attorneys in terms of education. Typically these three vocations required Bachelor’s Degrees and three to four years of graduate school education. These three groups were often the most educated people in communities and, for clergy, many of the early universities in colonial times were founded, in part, to educate clergy. In the beginning, most universities in the U.S. were established as institutions of faith: the colonial colleges – such as Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth (Congregationalist), College of William and Mary (Church of England), Princeton (Presbyterian) and Rutgers University (Dutch Reformed Church).

While this kind of education is required in many traditions there are no legal requirements for educating clergy. Some go to Bible colleges that may or may not have accreditation and some don’t go to college at all but are ordained by individual, independent churches. One can purchase mail order ordinations and these are legally recognized. The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster has a special. One can be ordained for $59. The ordination is as legally valid as a person who did the 8 years of requisite education. Why? This is freedom of religion.

Much of the argument has come about because of the legality of same gender weddings. I’ve heard too many people say the words, “Clergy will be forced…” Actually, this is bogus. Clergy are empowered to officiate at weddings but we have absolutely no obligation to officiate at any wedding. Churches have the freedom to officiate at the weddings of same gendered couples but they also have the freedom not to do so. Churches have the freedom to officiate at the weddings of people who have been divorced; but they also have the freedom to not do so. The reason is simple. This is freedom of religion.

The irony of this is that when same gender weddings were illegal there actually was an infringement on freedom of religion because churches were told that they were not allowed to officiate at the weddings of same gender couples. That was an example of an infringement on freedom of religion. When I hear people talking about baking wedding cakes as an infringement against their religious liberty and persecution, I would invite them to take some church history and read about persecution.

Is freedom of religion good? Like most things it’s not perfect but I’m glad about it. I celebrate everyone worshiping or not worshiping as they so desire and believing or not believing as they so desire. It’s just annoying when I hear people say they don’t have religious liberty when they most certainly do.

John Manzo is a retired United Church of Christ minister and teaches at Ivy Tech Community College. He can be reached at

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *