Last week on Constitution Day, September 17, I announced in an Examiner Enterprise column that Oklahoma Wesleyan University was officially filing a lawsuit against Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, the Obama Administration and the Affordable Care Act. I went further to state that the reason for our action is quite simple: “We believe in the United States Constitution and we take seriously the words of the First Amendment that ‘Congress shall make no law…prohibiting the free exercise of religion.’” I summarized by saying that at Oklahoma Wesleyan we hold that “whether you are Catholic or Jewish, or Mormon, Methodist, Mennonite or Muslim you should be, and are free in this country to practice your religion both privately and publically. I concluded by saying it is “nothing short of astonishing that the Federal government would ever presume to intrude into our bedrooms and tell any United States citizen what contraceptives they are required to buy,” especially if such purchases violate our religious beliefs.
Since writing last week’s article several have asked why OKWU is taking such a firm stand. Local radio and television stations have asked for interviews. RedState, the Tulsa World and several other blogs and media outlets have picked up my original op-ed. Many are curious. Why is this so important to Oklahoma Wesleyan University and the Wesleyan Church?
Perhaps the best way for me to answer this question is to refer to the words of history rather than use my own.
In 1802 the Danbury Baptist Association was becoming increasingly concerned that the federal government might succumb to the temptation to intrude upon their religious freedom; therefore they wrote a letter to the newly elected President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. Their letter read as follows. “Our sentiments are uniformly on the side of religious liberty: that religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals, that no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious opinions, [and] that the legitimate power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor.”
As you likely know, President Jefferson responded to the Danbury authors assuring them that the First Amendment of the United States Constitution provided them with full and unmitigated protection against any imposition upon their Church by that of the State. In his letter, Jefferson said he agreed with the Danbury Baptists that their “religion [was] a matter which lie[d] solely between man and his God.” He went further to say that “man owes account to none other [than God] for his faith or his worship …” He concluded by saying, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Jefferson then closed his letter by promising the Baptists (and all others by inference) that the State could not and would never be permitted to intrude into the religious lives of its citizens. He said a “wall of separation between Church and State” protected the Danbury Baptists. He went further and indicated that even he, the President of the United States, was bound constitutionally to adhere “to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience.” And, finally, he affirmed that he would “see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights…”
We are filing suit against Obama Care because we agree with Thomas Jefferson. We agree with what he said to the Danbury Baptists. We agree with what he said in his second inaugural address: “In matters of religion, [we] have considered that its free exercise is placed by the Constitution independent of the powers of the [federal] government.” We agree with what he said in a letter to the Methodist Episcopal Church: “Our excellent Constitution…has not placed our religious rights under the power of any public functionary.” We agree with what he said to Samuel Millar: “I consider the government of the United States as [prohibited] by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions…or exercises.”
Jefferson believed that the government should have no power to interfere with religion for a very simple reason: he had long witnessed the unhealthy tendency of government to encroach upon the free exercise of the faith of its citizens. He explained to Noah Webster, “it [has] become an universal and almost uncontroverted position…that the purposes of society do not require a surrender of all our rights to our ordinary governors” He then warned that “experience has nevertheless proved [government] will be constantly encroaching on [these rights]” and “that there are also certain fences which experience has proved peculiarly efficacious against [such] wrong[s]…Of the first kind, for instance, is freedom of religion.”
Thomas Jefferson knew that an unchecked government always tends to limit, restrict, or regulate religious practices. He had no intention of letting the naïve or the nefarious tear down the constitutional “fences” and “walls” that protect all of us from such a power hungry State. Neither do we!