Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) says the 1st Amendment’s religious liberty protections don’t apply to individuals. On MSNBC last week, Wisconsin’s junior Senator claimed that the Constitution’s protection of the free exercise of religion extends only to religious institutions, and that individual’s do not have a right to the free exercise of their own religion.
During the MSNBC appearance, which was covered by Breitbart and NewsBusters, Baldwin appeared clueless to the fact that the free exercise clause of the 1st Amendment has already been found to apply to individuals – not just churches, synagogues, mosques or other institutions of faith and worship.
The full text of the 1st Amendment reads:
“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.”
The relevant portion of Baldwin’s MSNBC appearance transcript reads:
“Certainly the First Amendment says that in institutions of faith that there is absolute power to, you know, to observe deeply held religious beliefs. But I don’t think it extends far beyond that. . . . [I]n this context, they’re talking about expanding this far beyond our churches and synagogues to businesses and individuals across this country. I think there are clear limits that have been set in other contexts and we ought to abide by those in this new context across America.”
The 1st Amendment’s free exercise clause says nothing about protecting religious institutions but not individuals. “Congress shall make no law…prohibiting the free exercise of [religion].”
University of St. Thomas Law School professor Thomas Berg writes in The Heritage Foundation’s Guide to the Constitution that Supreme Court jurisprudence has long concluded that the clause protects religiously motivated conduct as well as belief.
“Because it is now accepted that the Free Exercise of Religion Clause protects religiously motivated conduct as well as belief, the most important modern issue has been whether the protection only runs against laws that target religion itself for restriction, or, more broadly, whether the clause sometimes requires an exemption from a generally applicable law.”
Berg goes on to explore instances of individuals – not just institutions – receiving protection for their free exercise of religion thanks to the 1st Amendment.
Fascinatingly, Baldwin is on the record claiming that another portion of the 1st Amendment shouldn’t apply to institutions and should exclusively apply to individuals; a contradiction with her present arguments.
In the landmark case Citizens United v. FEC (2010), the U.S. Supreme Court held that corporations, unions and other organizations could spend money advocating for or against political candidates and issues. The Court said such spending was free speech protected by the 1st Amendment.
Baldwin made opposition to Citizens United a consistent theme of her campaign for U.S. Senate and her time as a senator. “I think it is so important that we overturn Citizens United,” Baldwin declared in a 2012 video for the leftwing publication The Nation. Baldwin claimed that corporations – essentially institutions – should not be entitled to the same freedoms afforded individuals.
“It is far too often the case in Washington that powerful corporate interests, the wealthy, and the well-connected get to write the rules, and now the Supreme Court has given them more power to rule the ballot box by creating an uneven playing field,” Baldwin complained after another free speech-related decision by the Supreme Court. Already she has voted in favor of a Constitutional amendment that would specifically curtail the 1st Amendment’s free speech protections by denying them to institutions and organizations.
As free speech and the free exercise of religion remain contentious topics, there is no sign Baldwin intends to reach a consistent position on whether or not the Constitution applies to individuals, institutions, or both.