Is religious liberty only for individuals or also for institutions? As Ryan Messmore explains, America’s founders thought that the Constitution’s “first freedom” is for both:
True liberty must take account of the relational aspect of human nature. And true religious liberty, in particular, must entail the freedom to exercise one’s faith in the various relationships and joint activities of day-to-day life. In other words, religious freedom applies to participation in institutions.
Each one of those institutions—our particular school, church, workplace, etc.—takes on a certain culture or identity. And that identity is shaped in large part by the values, beliefs, and habits of its members. A school might follow a particular dress code; a church follows certain standards of behavior or worship; a place of work sets certain working conditions and provides certain employee benefits. All of these particular value-laden marks of an institution help to form its identity and accomplish the tasks for which it was formed. And since participation in institutions is basic to human life, true freedom includes the ability to form and shape, enter and leave institutions that reflect our deepest values and convictions.
Historically, the Judeo-Christian tradition has understood this relational aspect of being human and emphasized the communal nature of faith. In fact, the Latin root of religion is religio, meaning “to bind.” Religious communities and institutions bind people vertically to God and horizontally to one another. And they play a significant role in human life and society—in terms of not only spiritual fulfillment or self-realization but also addressing social challenges and sustaining democratic order.