Religious liberty is our right, our responsibility

Life in middle Tennessee has quite a few factors that are part of the “norm.” Among those elements are sweet tea, cheap beer, football and church. Like most southern states, fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity is deeply rooted into our culture, and has been for more than two centuries. The simple fact is that we can’t read any part of the history of our great state without recognizing the fact that politics and religion — especially in Tennessee — are joined at the hip.

Any time we gather, a prayer is offered. Whether it’s a football game, a city council meeting, a rotary club meeting, or even a business breakfast — an invocation is not only part of the program, it’s compulsory. We Tennesseans take our freedom of religion seriously — in every possible way. As long as it’s Christian.

But what happens when a community of Muslims wants to build a mosque? Suddenly, our public prayer moments take on a new intensity. Gone are the platitudes of “wisdom” or “be in our midst.” Now they have an “enemy.” A false religion has invaded into their religious territory! How dare they! They’ll take down our country! The prayers turn to cries of horror as they beg their God to stop those horrible Muslims from building — or occupying — a place to worship!

Despite the rise of Islamophobia, the freedom of religion still remains. The First Amendment has two clauses that address religion, both of which are relevant. “Congress shall pass no law respecting the establishment of religion nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The Supreme Court has since clarified that the First Amendment applies to state and local governments as well.

The reality is that the freedom of religion cuts both ways — We are free to worship however we wish, and our government is prohibited from passing laws that encourage or restrict religion. This freedom includes Christianity and Judaism. It includes buddhism, Taoisim, Wicca and even Islam.

Far too often, our Tennessee religious zeal has been a catalyst for denying Muslims the freedom to worship in their own mosque. Zealots have stood in the way at every opportunity with a new anti-Muslim bill or ordinance. Thankfully, we have a system that’s subject to judicial review — where the courts can weigh every law and every policy in the light of the document that is truly the foundation of our government: The United States Constitution.

We are scarcely more American when we stand for liberty and justice for all. That’s the principle behind our struggle for GLBT equality, and it’s the pledge that we should not only give as allegiance to our flag — but to each other.

That First Amendment guarantees several things: Freedom to worship. Freedom from religious tyranny. Freedom to shout and freedom to print. Freedom to join, and freedom to petition our government.

We have the ability to do all of these things in the name of equality. More importantly, we have the responsibility to do them. Justice demands nothing less.

David W. Shelton is a writer, activist, speaker, trainer and business owner. He blogs at

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