By Mike McGhee
Special to The Globe
Today marks the beginning of a new stage in Missourians’ long tradition of preserving religious freedom. A bipartisan group of Missouri legislators is announcing the state’s first religious freedom caucus. The caucus will focus on protecting and strengthening religious freedom for Missourians of all faiths.
The Missouri caucus is part of a nationwide effort to establish religious freedom caucuses in every state by the end of 2013. In addition to Missouri, a bipartisan group consisting of over 100 legislators in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Tennessee is announcing the nation’s first nine-state religious freedom caucuses.
Threats to American religious freedom are increasing. At the national level, the preventive services mandate that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services finalized in February tramples core religious liberties. The mandate redefines in an abnormally narrow manner which religious employers qualify as religious enough to have their First Amendment rights protected.
The mandate wrongly concludes that leaders of religious social services and other religious charities do not deserve the same religious freedoms as leaders of churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious associations.
Fortunately, a strong commitment to religious liberties — and their closely related rights of conscience — is not a novelty in Missouri. The prominent statue of Thomas Jefferson that graces the state Capitol gives silent expression not only to our historical admiration for President Jefferson, but also to the principle of inalienable rights, which Jefferson recognized.
Although Jefferson himself straddled the line between deism and agnosticism throughout his life, he also wholly recognized the fundamental value of religious liberty within a free society. In his Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, Jefferson unapologetically asserts that “almighty God hath created the mind free,” and that all attempts to influence it through government coercion “tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness.” Jefferson’s message was unmistakable: Religious liberty and the freedom of individual conscience are at the core of our respect and reverence for each individual person.
A growing number of religious leaders and state legislators across the nation is emerging as guardians of religious freedom.
Legislators and their constituents acknowledge and cherish the same ideals Thomas Jefferson endorsed. They recognize that these ideals laid a foundation for two centuries of remarkably peaceful, though not perfect, religious pluralism.
The bloody 20th century purges that occurred in nations around the globe have demonstrated that religious intolerance is at least as dangerous as other forms of intolerance. Unfortunately, some cultural elites in America seek to shift our values and stifle religious freedom in the public square.
Increasingly, those practicing their faith outside the four walls of their houses of worship are a potential target for interest groups to condemn or, ironically, cite as being the ones who are undermining religious pluralism. This attitude is antithetical to the view of Americans of many faiths. Their religion is inextricably intertwined with their identity, and that’s something they can’t just leave behind them when walking out the door of their houses of worship.
The bipartisan Missouri religious freedom caucus now exists to protect religious liberty from the current barrage of legislative and judicial attacks. But it will also serve to educate Missourians and all Americans about the structural support religious freedom provides for the foundations of our nation.
Missourians have recently reaffirmed that they have a particular interest in religious freedom. Last month, the Missouri Legislature, acting with strong bipartisan support, overrode Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of conscience legislation. Legislators’ only goal was to guarantee something that, until earlier this year, was always guaranteed — the freedom of religious business owners not to provide contraceptives or abortion-inducing drugs that contradict their conscience.
In similarly grand fashion, Missouri citizens recently endorsed a prayer amendment, which I had the honor of sponsoring in the state legislature, by an overwhelming margin. The amendment protects students’ rights to pray on their own volition in schools, and to require public schools to display the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights — the very documents that guarantee these fundamental religious freedoms for all Americans, regardless of their particular faith.
Religious liberty is an essential building block and prerequisite for our freedom. Preserving religious liberty is essential to ensuring our state flourishes — that’s the mission of Missouri’s new religious freedom caucus.
Mike McGhee is a Missouri state legislator and current chairman of accounts and administration. He is a farmer and retired real estate investor in Odessa. He is running for re-election.