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Sen. James Lankford: Our American experiment of religious liberty – you can have your faith and live it, too

By: US Senator James Lankford

It is remarkable we still have to discuss this question, but we do. Can a person believe the faith of their choice or can they only believe the faith of the “in” group?

One of my favorite paintings is in the Capitol Rotunda, the Embarkation of the Pilgrims by Robert Weir. It depicts a group of Pilgrims on the deck of the Speedwell July 22, 1620, before its departure from Delfs Haven, Holland as it prepares to sail to England to join the Mayflower.

The painting shows how America began: a small group of people, gathered around an open Bible, praying. Five months later, the Pilgrims settled Plymouth Colony in present-day Massachusetts with the hope that they could live their faith free from government imposition.

As many people know, Massachusetts Colony allowed people to live the accepted faith, but not any faith.

Not until 1636, when Roger Williams was kicked out of the colony and set up life in Providence, Rhode Island, did America have a place where people could live any faith—so began the American experiment of religious liberty.

Oddly enough, what we call our “First Freedoms,” were not included in the original Constitution and they were not even first in the Bill of Rights.

Originally, the Bill of Rights was actually 12 Amendments, with the first amendment concerning apportionment in the U.S. House and the second about congressional pay. Thankfully, after final ratification, we made our first priority, first.

The First Amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

In the words of founder James Madison, religious opinions are a “property of particular value.” Our nation respects the right of everyone to have a faith, live that faith, change their faith, or have no faith at all.

As a Christian, my faith isn’t just a hobby I practice on weekends. My faith impacts my daily life whether I’m in Washington, DC, or my back yard.

Elected officials have the same right as every other American: to have a faith and live their faith. I cannot and should not impose my faith on others, but neither can others impose their faith or lack of faith on me.

Houses of worship, parochial schools, faith-based nonprofits, and others serve our communities and the hungry, hurting, and homeless. However, they are continually scrutinized under the misguided notion that faith-based entities in our nation should not be able to compete for public funding or federal or state programs under the guise that doing so would violate the Establishment Clause. But, the Supreme Court has rightfully held that Americans should be allowed to participate in their government and not be required to surrender their faith.

In 2012, a preschool operated by Trinity Lutheran Church in Missouri applied for a state grant to resurface its playground with recycled scrap tire to replace its pea-gravel playground. Though Trinity Lutheran ranked in the top-5 applications, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources denied Trinity Lutheran’s grant solely because the preschool was operated by a church. In other words, they could get the tire scraps for their playground, if they surrendered their faith.

The Church brought its case all the way to the US Supreme Court, and the Court ruled 7-2 that the government cannot exclude churches and other faith-based organizations from a generally available benefit simply because of their religious identity.

In 2020, a mom in Montana tried to utilize a state scholarship program to send her daughters to a Christian school, but the state specifically stipulated that the program could not be used at religious schools.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court held that Montana violated the free exercise clause of the Constitution when it disallowed the use of the scholarship at faith-based schools. The state of Montana did not have to create a scholarship program, but if it did. It could not discriminate against people of faith.

Oklahoma, like Montana, is one of more than 30 states that have language in statute, or in their state Constitution, that specifically targets people of faith for discrimination. These “Blaine Amendments” were highly prejudicial 19th-century attempts to prevent Catholic entities from receiving any government benefits.

The original Blaine Amendment, which thankfully failed in the US Senate, read: “No State shall make any law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; and no money raised by taxation in any State for the support of public schools, or derived from any public fund therefor, nor any public lands devoted thereto, shall ever be under the control of any religious sect; nor shall any money so raised or lands so devoted be divided between religious sects or denominations.”

Blaine Amendments were not about protecting the First Amendment. They were, and still are, antiquated, anti-faith provisions that masquerade as preventing the establishment of a religion. They actually tell people that their school, charity, or nonprofit is less valuable because of their faith and that they are not welcome to interact with their government, unless they first give up their faith.

That is not who we are as a nation. We should encourage any and all faith groups to participate in and compete for publicly available programs just like any other business or group. That is the opposite of establishing a religion.

I was successful in securing an amendment to the Senate Budget Resolution to ensure churches and houses of worship are treated the same as secular organizations regarding COVID health restrictions.

The same gathering and health rules should apply regardless of the organization’s message or faith. I also ensured faith-based organizations were eligible for the Paycheck Protection Program and for FEMA disaster aid the same as any other small business.

We should be neutral to faith.

In America, we have the free exercise of religion. You can choose any faith or no faith and still be a great American.

You don’t have to choose between your faith and serving in public office or partnering with your government to serve your community.

You can literally have your faith and live it too.