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What is ‘freedom,’ really?

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What is Freedom

These days, it seems like we hear people talk about “freedom” and “individual rights” every day.  But do we actually know what the word “freedom” really means?  And what are rights?

The dictionary literally defines freedom as “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.”  In other words, freedom implies that people are able to do things without having to ask for permission.  An “individual right” is likewise a specific freedom a person is entitled to exercise without having to ask for permission.

There are two important things to keep in mind when it comes to rights and freedoms.

First, they generally don’t place a burden on anybody else to do something.  Instead, they’re all about your ability to act without someone else getting in the way.  For example, while the First Amendment protects the freedom of speech, that doesn’t guarantee anybody a platform.  You can speak your mind on the news, but you aren’t entitled to a newspaper or a radio station publishing your viewpoints.

Second, they imply a duty of every person to responsibly exercise your rights.  You cannot exercise your rights in a way that impinges upon somebody else’s rights.  That is, your rights stop where they trample upon someone else’s rights.  That’s why we have government and laws, to protect one person’s rights from being disrupted by somebody else.  As James Madison once said, “Liberty may be endangered by the abuses of liberty as well as the abuses of power.”

Additionally, with personal freedom comes personal responsibility.  Free people must always strive to act in a way that is moral and ethical.  Just because you have can do something doesn’t mean you should do it.  This is where cultural battles over morality and proper conduct become so important,

In a speech he gave in 1783, shortly after the end of the Revolutionary War, George Washington explained: “The establishment of Civil and Religious Liberty was the Motive which induced me to the Field – the object is attained – and it now remains to be my earnest wish and prayer, that the Citizens of the United States could make a wise and virtuous use of the blessings placed before them.”  Notice those words, “wise” and “virtuous.”  Freedom implies a responsibility that is prudent and moral.

Today, people of conscience are facing increasing impediments to virtuously exercising their rights under the U.S. Constitution.  Consider the push to force faith-based adoption providers to offer adoptions to same-sex couples or single-parent households, even if it is against their policies.  In some cases, adoption agencies have been forced to shut down their programs because the government disapproves of their religious values.

One such case dealt with the New York-based nonprofit, New Hope Family Services.  NY had targeted New Hope for insistence upon prioritizing children with homes led by a married mother and father.  The state tried to force the agency to cease adoptions unless new Hope complied.  New Hope and its attorneys at Alliance Defending Freedom sued in court.

In 2020, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York ruled in favor of New Hope Family Services and approved Alliance Defending Freedom’s motion for a preliminary injunction to protect New Hope’s ability to continue servicing adoptions.  While someone may disagree with New Hope’s religious convictions, they have the right to exercise their freedoms responsibly and in accordance with their faith.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled in support of a similar foster care program operated by Catholic Social Services of Philadelphia.  For religious reasons, their program disqualifies same-sex couples from being foster parents.

In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the agency “seeks only an accommodation that will allow it to continue serving the children of Philadelphia in a manner consistent with its religious beliefs; it does not seek to impose those beliefs on anybody else.”  He also affirmed that Catholic Social Services of Philadelphia have an extreme burden upon its right to “religious exercise by putting it to the choice of curtailing its mission or approving relationships inconsistent with its beliefs.”

In both instances – New Hope Family Services and Catholic Social Services of Philadelphia – these service agencies are exercising their rights in a way that abides religious conviction.  Other adoption and foster care agencies are free to operate differently, but government is not allowed to violate their right to abide religious conscience and conviction by giving them an ultimatum to comply or shut down.

As Alliance Defending Freedom’s senior counsel Roger Brooks put it, “Government officials have no business forcing faith-based providers to choose between speaking messages about marriage that contradict their religious convictions and closing their doors.”