Following in Jefferson’s Footsteps

by | Dec 6, 2016 | Blog, Legislative, News

To Protect our Religious Freedom

By John Carey, CHEWV’s Legislative Liaison

In my last article, I discussed the words of Thomas Jefferson that are embedded in the WV Constitution:

“No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever; nor shall any man be enforced, restrained, molested or burthened, in his body or goods, or otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief, but all men shall be free to profess and by argument, to maintain their opinions in matters of religion; and the same shall, in nowise, affect, diminish or enlarge their civil capacities.”

Jefferson had an undying passion for religious liberty, a passion that I share.  Why?  Because our freedom to do what our conscience dictates forms the underlying liberty Americans have to serve God without state reprisal.  “Freedom of Religion” was so valued by our Forefathers that they embedded it into the Bill of Rights. 

Religious freedom is also foundational to many of our other freedoms – like Christian homeschooling!  We can teach our children from a Christian worldview because of our religious liberty.  Yet, even Jefferson knew that creating laws and constitutions was insufficient to protect liberty.

The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”

Vigilance is exactly what is needed right now to protect our religious liberties.  The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) is sorely needed to shore up our religious freedom.  But many of our state legislators have said that no action is needed in West Virginia because of Jefferson’s words in our Constitution. 

Consider Virginia, the state that West Virginians’ freedoms were drawn from.  Virginia boasts a history of religious liberty tracing back more than 200 years.  Yet in 2007 they still took the step to protect those freedoms by passing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  Virginia did not claim that Jefferson’s words were enough when faced with the threats to religious freedom evident across our great nation.  Instead they acted, and Governor Tim Kaine signed the Virginia RFRA into law.

A proliferation of Sexual Orientation Gender Identity (SOGI) laws have recently emerged in local municipalities across West Virginia.  These laws are being passed by town councils for the noble purpose of preventing discrimination against one select group.  Unfortunately, they have the tragic effect of causing discrimination against another.  What they seek to prevent for one group, they end up causing for another.

What is needed is for a discussion to occur so that these conflicting needs can be resolved, something the RFRA enables through the “Compelling State Interest Test.”  The SOGI’s seek to validate the notion that gender is a choice to be made by individuals, and that government and businesses are obliged to endorse those choices. It is hoped that local governments will revisit SOGI decisions and realign their thinking with what is expressed in the West Virginia State Constitution – that “all men shall be free to profess…and maintain their opinions in matters of religion.”

In the face of contentious debate, the West Virginia House of Delegates has passed the RFRA twice in the last four years by overwhelming margins, both when Democrats and Republicans were in control.  Each time, however, the Senate has refused to take up the bill or has gutted it so that it was not worth passing.  How can this happen when it was reported in the last session that 93 percent of West Virginians want the RFRA passed to protect their freedoms?

While it can be said that vocal proponents on both sides of the issue have encouraged unfair assumptions about the intent of their adversaries in order to inflame the dialogue, excellent testimony in the House and the Senate in support of the RFRA also brought clarity to this issue.  Such testimony, particularly that of Judiciary Chairman John Shott and Senator Ed Gaunch, can serve as a basis of understanding as we seek to move forward.  Let’s earnestly pray that God will enable an HONEST dialogue to make clear to the West Virginia Senate and local governments that the issue is not about hatred, but about embracing the fundamental freedoms for which Jefferson fought.  Simply said, the issue is to ensure that individual rights of conscience are protected – for “all men.”

It is not yet clear what the Legislature will do regarding RFRA in the 2017 session.  But it is clear that this issue cannot easily be dismissed, for the threats to our religious freedom persist.  WV Christian families should stay informed and prepared for action against any potential threat to our liberty to educate our children as we see fit.  After all, Mountaineers must remain as tenacious and committed to religious liberty as Thomas Jefferson himself!

If you want to learn more about the RFRA, click here!