One hundred years ago human slavery was abolished here in America. The practice of buying and selling my people from the slave block ceased with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. No longer in a land where men were supposed to be free were human beings to be bought and sold like so many cattle. No longer was a group of people, who too had been created in the image of God, to be forced to do someone else’s bidding without regard to their personal convictions and feelings.
But today a new type of slavery has crept into our American way of life. This time the human being upon the slave block has been replaced by subtle attempts to auction off the consciences of men. No longer in America is a man completely free to conform to the dictates of his conscience. His personal feelings of obligation to do and act in accordance with what he believes to be right or wrong are being stifled.
America was founded upon the principle of religious liberty. There were reasons for this. Our forefathers came to the shores of the New World seeking that which had been denied them in their homelands. They wanted religious freedom. They knew what it was like to be told when to worship, to be told whom to worship, and to be told how that worship must be carried out. They knew what it was like to have not only their actions dictated to them but their beliefs and thoughts as well, for they had experienced life in countries dominated by state religions.
But here, on the shores of a land untainted by state religion, men were free to worship their God or not to worship as they saw fit. Those who had been persecuted for their beliefs willingly and gladly came to the New World. Unfortunately, their own trials and persecutions suffered in the homeland had taught them nothing, for tolerance soon led to intolerance. Perhaps it was because they had confused tolerance with religious liberty. You see, under a system of toleration one is given the privilege of exercising his beliefs, whereas true religious liberty recognizes the fact that everyone already has an innate and absolute right to worship his God as he believes he should.
In the colonies of Massachusetts and Connecticut people were fined, thrown into jail, and placed in the public stocks for not attending church services held by the established church of the colony. In Maryland anyone who spoke out against God or the established church had a hole bored in his tongue. In Virginia if an individual missed church for the third time, he was sentenced to death.
Fortunately there were those who did not forget the original reason for which they had come to this country. And some of them dared speak out against the things that were taking place. One such individual was Roger Williams, of Salem, Massachusetts. He stood firmly for religious liberty as he told the town magistrates that “no one could prescribe or dictate [a] man’s belief, excepting his own conscience,” and he denied that they had any right to punish heresy or to compel attendance at religious services. Because Roger Williams dared to stand up for what he believed was right, he was banished from the colony of Massachusetts and driven out into the wilderness, where he became the founder of Rhode Island, the colony that was to become a haven of safety to those who in a strange land once more found themselves persecuted because of their religious beliefs.
During this time of persecution our country was being born. The framers of our Constitution were not allowed to consider their job finished until they had made some definite provision for the assurance of religious liberty in the new nation. The Constitution as originally drawn up contained no such provision, and because of this Rhode Island and North Carolina refused to ratify it until a Bill of Rights including religious liberty was adopted. This was done, and the First Amendment of what is called the Bill of Rights begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” At last religious freedom had become a reality in America.
Nearly two hundred years have passed since the founding of this nation. But we find that we do not have as much religious liberty now as then. Slavery has returned to America, and this time it is seeking to enslave the human mind. For, as if to undermine the very purpose for which America stands, certain laws have been written upon the statute books of the states. These laws, commonly called blue laws, are laws which are intended to regulate private conduct or matters of individual conscience.
Exactly how do these laws violate the principle of religious liberty? New York State has on its statute books a typical Sunday law. It is divided into fourteen sections, the first section of which is entitled, “The Sabbath.” This section states that the law prohibits the doing of certain acts which are serious interruptions of the repose and religious liberty of the community. The second section of this law defines any violation of the specific acts mentioned in the law as “Sabbathbreaking.”
In my way of thinking, when a state law recognizes the traditional religious day of some of its citizens as a day to be observed by all citizens, then this is a direct violation of the First Amendment. The clergy of states with similar laws have been urged to get behind them. And many of them do, laboring under the delusion that these laws will somehow increase the attendance at their churches on Sunday morning. I am sure that none of these ministers could report any significant increase in church attendance as a result of Sunday legislation. William Lloyd Garrison has aptly said, “You cannot by any enactments bind the conscience of man, nor force man into obedience to what God requires.”
Take the Sunday Closing Law of Oklahoma, or Virginia, or any one of a dozen states with similar laws. Why name the day of closing? If it weren’t for religious reasons, wouldn’t any day in seven serve just as well? If these laws are basically health and welfare laws, as they are said to be, an individual would receive just as much benefit if he rested on Tuesday instead of Sun- day. Why does a merchant have to close his store on Sunday? If it was because of economic reasons, wouldn’t Wednesday serve the same purpose? What other conclusion can be drawn other than that these laws are in direct violation of the Constitution and the principle of religious liberty?
Surely we cannot sit back idle and allow ourselves and our nation to be enslaved and brainwashed by such laws. We must not forget the struggles of the past if we plan to face the future as a democratic nation. More of us should be concerned with the true principles upon which our country was founded—the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—principles to which we owe our success as a nation.
It is absolutely necessary to the maintenance of religious freedom that we take advantage of our right to speak against and to disagree with state requirements which interfere with our personal beliefs concerning God. Unless we do speak out sincerely and with conviction, the black curtain of slavery will once again be drawn over the face of our nation, and this time there will be no Lincoln to issue an Emancipation Proclamation. -Originally published in Message Magazine in the August 1963 Edition and written by Norma Jean Smith