Assessing Human Rights/status reports/Article 18 and the United States—Status Report
Proud Americans describe their country as “The Land of the free and the home of the brave.” Do these United States citizens enjoy the full protections of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?
Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights requires:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
This status report examines public policy, cultural norms, and ongoing dissention to assess the protections provided in the United States for Article 18.
The government of the United States of America is the federal government of the republic of fifty states that constitute the United States, as well as one capital district, and several other territories. The federal government is composed of three distinct branches: legislative, executive, and judicial, whose powers are vested by the U.S. Constitution in the Congress, the President, and the federal courts, including the Supreme Court, respectively.
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution requires:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
This amendment provides the primary protection for the free exercise of religion. In addition the equal protection clause of the fourteenth amendment provides that no state shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction “the equal protection of the laws.” Article Six of the United States Constitution provides that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States". Together these constitutional provisions establish public policy providing important human rights protections aligned with Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution includes two clauses that work together to protect the Peoples’ right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. The Free Exercise clause states that Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion. The Establishment clause states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” The Establishment clause has resulted in rulings restricting government financial assistance to religious organizations, state-sanctioned prayer in public schools, and religious displays.
The First amendment also ensures that Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. These provisions help to protect each person’s freedom to change his religion or belief, and protect the freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
The scope of constitutional protections, including these, is largely defined by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth and Fifth Amendments. These have been the subject of much debate and interpretation,,  however the scope of the protections has tended to increase over time.
Legitimacy of the ConstitutionEdit
These constitutional protections are significant because the Constitution, including these amendments, attains its legitimacy from several powerful mechanisms. The Signing of the United States Constitution occurred on September 17, 1787, at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, when 39 delegates to the Constitutional Convention, representing 12 states endorsed the Constitution they created during the lengthy convention. Subsequently each state legislature called elections for a "Federal Convention" to ratify the new Constitution. After lengthy discussion and debate, all thirteen states ratified the Constitution by 1790. The Constitution delineates the national frame of government. A Congressional power of enforcement is included in a number of amendments to the United States Constitution. Ongoing Judicial review includes the power of the Court to explain the meaning of the Constitution as it applies to particular cases. In the landmark Marbury v. Madison decision, the Supreme Court asserted its authority to review congressional acts.
Upholding the ConstitutionEdit
The Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution (Article VI, Clause 2) establishes that the Constitution, federal laws made pursuant to it, and treaties made under its authority, constitute the supreme law of the land. Justices take a constitutional oath to uphold the Constitution as "Supreme law of the land”. In addition, the president, along with many government officials and military officers take oaths to uphold the Constitution. This long history of deliberation, endorsement, and affirmations, establishes the legitimacy of the United States Constitution to establish the governing structures of the country through the rule of law.
Interpreting the ConstitutionEdit
The courts have worked to interpret the first amendment fairly, and this interpretation continues to evolve. In Reynolds v. United States (1878), the Supreme Court found that while laws cannot interfere with religious belief and opinions, laws can be made to regulate some religious practices (e.g., human sacrifices, and the Hindu practice of suttee). Therefore, according to this ruling, “Freedom of religion means freedom to hold an opinion or belief, but not to take action in violation of social duties or subversive to good order.” The Court stated that to rule otherwise, “would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect permit every citizen to become a law unto himself. Government would exist only in name under such circumstances.” In Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940), the Court held that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment applied the Free Exercise Clause to the states. As a result, while the right to have religious beliefs is absolute, the freedom to act on such beliefs is not absolute.
Several rulings seek to clarify when the government can refuse to accommodate religiously motivated conduct. The 1963 decision in Sherbert v. Verner required that a government needed to have a "compelling interest" regarding a refusal to accommodate religiously motivated conduct. The need for a compelling governmental interest was narrowed in Employment Division v. Smith (1990), broadened by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, restricted in City of Boerne v. Flores (1997), and clarified in Gonzales v. UDV (2006). Religious exemptions to the protections of civil rights based upon classifications such as race, color, national origin, sex, disability status, sexual orientation, and gender identity, when they are permissible, significantly infringe upon these civil rights.
Religion in the United States is characterized by a diversity of religious beliefs and practices. Various religious faiths have flourished within the United States. A majority of Americans report that religion plays a very important role in their lives, a proportion unique among developed countries.
Historically, the United States has always been marked by religious pluralism and diversity. Today the majority of Americans identify themselves as Christians, while close to a quarter claim no religious affiliation. A 2014 survey by the Pew Forum estimates the distribution of religious affiliations in the United States as shown in the chart on the right:
Many organizations promote interfaith dialogue within the United States and more broadly around the world. In a statement issued by the White House, President Obama declared his dedication to fostering interfaith dialogue, cooperation and understanding. According to that statement, one of the priorities of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships is to create opportunities for interreligious cooperation. In addition, Interfaith Partners of South Carolina is one of hundreds of initiatives that seek to foster engagement across lines of religious difference, efforts that are often collectively called the “interfaith movement.” Also, many of the international interreligious organizations are active within the United States.
Interfaith marriage is common in United States, particularly among the recently married. Almost four-in-ten Americans (39%) who have married since 2010 have a spouse who is in a different religious group. Interfaith relationships are even more common today among unmarried people living with a romantic partner than among those who are married. Nearly half (49%) of unmarried couples are living with someone of a different faith.
Ongoing Tensions, Controversies, Dissent, and DynamicsEdit
Artifacts of the Christian nation include use of the phrase “in god we trust” as the official motto of the United States. This phrase first appeared on U.S. coins in 1864 and has appeared on paper currency since 1957. A law passed in a Joint Resolution by the 84th Congress and approved by President Dwight Eisenhower on July 30, 1956 declared "IN GOD WE TRUST" must appear on currency. Adopting "In God We Trust" as a national motto and its use on U.S. currency has been the subject of numerous unsuccessful lawsuits.
The phrase “one Nation under God” was incorporated into the Pledge of Allegiance on June 14, 1954, by a Joint Resolution of Congress amending §4 of the Flag Code enacted in 1942. The pledge itself, and especially the phrase “under god” have been subjected to many legal challenges. Citing the ruling in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the American Humanist Association advocates boycotting the pledge.,
The National Day of Prayer is an annual day of observance held on the first Thursday of May, designated by the United States Congress, when people are asked "to turn to God in prayer and meditation". Each year since its inception, the president has signed a proclamation, encouraging all Americans to pray on this day. The constitutionality of the National Day of Prayer was unsuccessfully challenged in court by the Freedom From Religion Foundation after their first attempt was unanimously dismissed by a federal appellate court in April 2011.
The American religious landscape has undergone substantial changes in recent years. However, one of the most consequential shifts in American religion has been the rise of religiously unaffiliated Americans. Today, one-quarter (25%) of Americans claim no formal religious identity, making this group the single largest “religious group” in the U.S. Nonetheless, secular views are substantially underrepresented among the 535 members of the United States Congress. In 2007 Representative Pete Stark (D-Calif.) became the first Congress member in history to acknowledge his nontheism. As of 2013 there were no atheists in congress.
The constitutions of seven "Bible Belt" U.S. states ban atheists from holding public office. However, these laws are unenforceable due to conflicting with the First Amendment and Article VI of the constitution.
Congressman Paul Broun has said: “God’s word is true. I’ve come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the big bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell.” Promoting Christian views while dismissing settled science is particularly consequential because Broun was a high-ranking member of the House Science Committee.
Burwell v. Hobby Lobby is a 2014 landmark decision in United States corporate law by the United States Supreme Court allowing closely held for-profit corporations to be exempt from a law its owners religiously object to if there is a less restrictive means of furthering the law's interest. The ruling remains controversial for the preference it gives to religious beliefs over federal law.
There are several other recent and prominent examples of religious intolerance and discrimination in the United States.
On December 7, 2015, in response to the 2015 San Bernardino attack, Republican Presidential nominee, Donald Trump called for a temporary ban on any Muslims entering the country. He issued a written statement saying, "Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on", which he repeated at subsequent political rallies.
In July 2010, Terry Jones, the pastor of the Christian Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, U.S., announced he would burn 200 Qurans on the 2010 anniversary of the September 11 attacks. He gained media coverage, resulting in international outrage over his plans and pleas from world leaders to cancel the event. Jones's threat sparked protests in the Middle East and Asia, in which at least 20 people were killed.
In 2013 there were 1,163 religion motivated hate crimes reported to law enforcement in the United States.
Although constitutional protections and a culture of diverse religious practices are strong arguments for a high overall score, the under representation of the rapidly emerging non-religious segment and the ongoing acts of religious intolerance necessarily reduce that score. Overall, the evidence provided in the status report supports a score of 8.5 out of a possible 10 based on the established scoring guidelines.
The constitutional protections, legitimacy of the Constitution, Supreme Court rulings, rule of law, representative government, cultural diversity, the prevalence of interfaith dialogue and interfaith marriages, and non-violent forums for resolving disputes are all cited in the status report as excellent mechanisms in place to provide the human rights protections described in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Other countries are encouraged to study these practices, learn from them, and consider how they may be helpful in improving protections for the human rights described in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Opportunities for ImprovementEdit
To improve protections for the human rights described in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights it is respectfully suggested that the people of the United States and their government stop privileging theism and Christian beliefs above other beliefs, especially secular worldviews. Furthermore, efforts to increase tolerance of religious and non-religious diversity would be helpful.
The people and the government of the United States are encouraged to identify countries scoring higher in this area, study the practices, learn from them, and consider how adopting those practices may be helpful in improving protections for the human rights described in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
- This phrase is from the lyrics to the Star Spangled Banner, the national anthem of the United States of America.
- Equal Protection: An Overview, Cornell Law School
- Equal Protection, Heritage Guide to the Constitution
- History of Equal Protection and the Levels of Review, National paralegal college
- Pritchett, C. Herman (1959). The American Constitution. New York: McGraw-Hill, Page 134.
- Peaceful Coexistence: Reconciling Nondiscrimination Principles with Civil Liberties, A Briefing Before The United States Commission on Civil Rights
- “America's Changing Religious Landscape". Pew Research Center: Religion & Public Life. May 12, 2015.
- "America's Changing Religious Landscape". Pew Research Center: Religion & Public Life. May 12, 2015.
- The White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships https://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/ofbnp
- Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, The White House Briefing Room https://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/ofbnp/policy/interfaith
- Interfaith marriage is common in U.S., particularly among the recently wed, Pew Research Center, June 2, 2015, Caryle Murphy
- See, for example: http://www.internationalcopsforchrist.com/proof-that-america-was-founded-as-a-christian-nation/
- U.S. Department of the Treasury. (2011) "History of 'In God We Trust'" http://www.treasury.gov
- Court Dismisses Challenge to National Day of Prayer, USA Today
- Paul Broun: Evolution, Big Bang ‘Lies Straight From The Pit Of Hell’, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/06/paul-broun-evolution-big-bang_n_1944808.html
- States With Religious and Philosophical Exemptions From School Immunization Requirements, National Conference of State Legislatures, August 23, 2016.
- Pew further subdivides Protestant into Evangelical Protestant (25.4%), Mainline Protestant (14.7%), and historically Black Protestant (6.5%).
- Pew includes in other Christian, Jehovah's Witnesses (0.8%), Orthodox Christian (0.5%), everyone else (0.4%)
- Pew includes in other religions, Sikhs, Baha'is, Jains, Taoists, Unitarians, New Age religions, Native American religions, etc.
- Pew includes in unaffiliated atheists (3.1%), agnostics (4.0%), and nothing (15.8%)