The term “religious freedom” has been the hobby horse of mainstream Christian Americans since long before Donald Trump signed an executive order last week focused on the rights of “people of faith.” In cases involving florists who refuse to work with same-sex couples planning a wedding, or Catholic hospitals that will not perform abortions for religious reasons, it is Christians — 70.6 percent of the American population — taking up the spoken mantle of our First Amendment right to freely practice the religion of our choosing. But very often, conservative Christians touting the right to practice their religious beliefs — the very same Christians who don’t think Trump’s religious freedom executive order goes far enough in protecting them — are talking about the freedom to believe in Jesus Christ and not, say, a monument to Satan.
Which is too bad, because mainstream Christians have the protections they enjoy — including the freedom to, in Trump’s words, avoid being “targeted, bullied or silenced” for their faith — in large part thanks to the legislative efforts of religions shared by people they’ve likely never met, and might not be able to stand if they had. The religious freedom protections that ensure there will never be a literal “War on Christmas” were established on two occasions by religious groups that mainstream believers found abhorrent — and in one instance, when the Supreme Court made the wrong call, evangelical Christians even joined forces with the ACLU to ensure that all Americans would have the right to practice their faith.
There are about 2.5 million Jehovah’s Witnesses in the United States, and roughly 8 million worldwide. Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t celebrate any holidays (including birthdays), and, unlike most Christians, they believe that Jesus Christ died on a pole (not a cross), that only 144,000 Christians will go to heaven, and that the End Times began when Satan was cast down from heaven on October 1, 1914. Armageddon, they hold, will come when the United Nations (the “scarlet beast” depicted in the biblical Book of Revelation) destroys all of Earth’s governments and all other religions. Believing literally in a Biblical verse in which God commands His followers to not worship any entity besides Himself, Jehovah’s Witnesses do not serve in the military and do not salute flags of any country, refusing to pledge allegiance to any authority other than God.
In 1935, a 12-year-old Jehovah’s Witness, Lillian Gobitas, and her younger brother William were expelled from their school for refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance. Their refusal to say the Pledge was, according to the school board of the town of Minersville, Pennsylvania, “insubordination.” Because of their refusal to salute the flag, Lillian and William were pelted with rocks by townspeople, and local churches boycotted their family’s grocery store. Their father, Walter Gobitas, filed a lawsuit to defend his children, who had been forced to attend a private school after their expulsion. In 1940 the case went before the Supreme Court, where in an 8-1 decision the Court ruled that you could, in fact, force someone to salute the flag of the United States. “National unity is the basis of national security,” the Court ruled, writing that individual liberties were less important than patriotism.
The impact on Jehovah’s Witnesses was immediate. Members of the religious group in more than 40 states experienced incredible violence — Witnesses were expelled from schools, attacked by mobs, thrown out of their homes, jailed en masse, and, in one case, castrated. One Southern sheriff, when asked why Witnesses were being expelled from his town, said, “They’re traitors; the Supreme Court says so. Ain’t you heard?” But Jehovah’s Witnesses across the country refused to disobey their religious tenets and continued to resist saluting the flag. In Charleston, West Virginia, two grade-schoolers, Marie and Gathie Barnett, refused to salute the flag and were expelled from school. The Barnetts’ case went before the Supreme Court in 1943, in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (the misspelling a result of a court clerk’s error). And, in the midst of the Second World War, the Court reversed itself and ruled once and for all that individual liberties matter. Recalling efforts throughout history to exterminate religious minorities, Justice Robert H. Jackson wrote in the majority opinion, “Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters.” Because of four kids and a comparatively tiny religious group, Americans are free to salute the flag — or not — and can’t be punished either way.
Fifty years later, another religious group stood up for its right to practice its faith before the Supreme Court. But this time, the issue wasn’t the American flag — it was animal sacrifice. The Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye was a tiny group in Florida dedicated to Santeria (meaning “the way of the saints”), an Afro-Caribbean faith that combines some elements of Catholicism with ancient Yoruba practices that slaves brought with them from West Africa to Cuba during the 17th and 18th centuries. Santeria holds that spirits called orishas — which often take the form of Catholic saints — can help Santeria believers fulfill their destiny, but require regular tokens of devotion in order to do so, including animal sacrifices.
When the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye announced that it would be moving to Hialeah, Florida, in 1987, the city council of Hialeah scrambled to stop it, with one councilmember saying that the religion was “in violation of everything this country stands for.” The city council’s solution? Ban “all religious practices which are inconsistent with public morals, peace, or safety,” and specifically, prohibit the ownership of animals intended for sacrifices unless approved by the state. But the Supreme Court ruled in a unanimous decision in 1993 that towns and cities can’t target specific religious groups and suppress their activities because they don’t like what those groups believe. As Justice Anthony Kennedy said in the decision, “religious beliefs need not be acceptable, logical, consistent or comprehensible to others in order to merit First Amendment protection.”
But in Employment Division v. Smith, the Supreme Court ruled against religious freedom — and religious people of many faiths came together to fix the problem. In 1989, two Native American men went before the Supreme Court after losing their jobs because of their faith. They were members of the Native American Church — like mainstream Christians, they believe in one God; unlike mainstream Christians, they use the hallucinogenic drug peyote in religious ceremonies. After drug tests required by their employer, both men tested positive for peyote and were subsequently fired from their jobs. The Supreme Court ruled in 1990 against the two men, saying that they were trying to use religion as an excuse to disobey the law, similar to someone attempting to avoid paying their taxes because taxation violated their religious beliefs. The reaction to the ruling was immediate, and negative. Christians, Jews, and the ACLU worked together and pushed the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) through Congress in 1993, when it was signed into law by Bill Clinton.
Those same federal protections are what keep Nativity scenes of the Virgin Mary and the Baby Jesus in our public squares and a Christmas tree on public property in our nation’s capital — while also ensuring that Donald Trump can’t favor one religion over another. Christians are secure in their rights to believe and practice as they wish because of religions that believe the United Nations will launch the Apocalypse, animal sacrifices are necessary in order to find true happiness, and the best way to find enlightenment is through hallucinogenic drugs. It’s funny how life works sometimes.