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As we gather together with friends and family to celebrate Thanksgiving this week, we would do well to reflect upon both the sacrifices and motivations of those who celebrated the first Thanksgiving. We all know about the storied 1620 voyage aboard the Mayflower and the establishment of the Plymouth Colony. After enduring the arduous journey, the difficult establishment of the colony, and the misfortunes and death of many of their numbers, the Pilgrims famously shared a harvest feast with the Pokanoket Indian tribe in autumn of 1621; that shared meal is considered the basis for the first Thanksgiving holiday. We also know that the Pilgrims were ordinary English men and women seeking religious freedom from governmental oppression and that they endured all the uncertainty and harshness of the New World in order to attain it.

In the subsequent 400 years, America established itself as a land of tolerance and opportunity for people of all religions and has served as a beacon of religious freedom for the world. Pope John Paul II declared, “America first proclaimed its independence on the basis of self-evident moral truths. America will remain a beacon of freedom for the world as long as it stands by those moral truths which are the very heart of its historical experience. And so America: If you want peace, work for justice. If you want justice, defend life. If you want life, embrace the truth — the truth revealed by God.”

This year has brought new questions regarding American religious freedom and the durability of the First Amendment. In response to the whisper that the Dobbs ruling could overturn the Obergefell decision, which legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, leftist members of Congress have loudly pushed for a bill that amounts to a federal codification of Obergefell. The SCOTUS opinion specifically delineated that the Dobbs reasoning doesn’t apply to same-sex marriage. However, Justice Clarence Thomas disagreed and activists have pointed to Thomas’ argument as justification to legislatively enshrine same-sex marriage. However, critics of the bill say its true purpose is to make any insistence on traditional marriage unacceptable in the public square.

Many conservatives believe the bill, inaptly named the Respect for Marriage Act (RFMA), would allow government to take away the tax-exempt status of religious organizations like adoption and foster care services, could block religious schools or colleges from receiving federal grants, and could block Christian-owned businesses from receiving federal contracts for the sin of believing in traditional marriage. Further, it outlines a private right of action that could give activists legal authority to file lawsuits against individuals and institutions of faith who disagree with their take on marriage. It is clear the RFMA allows for some protection specifically for churches regarding marriage ceremonies, but it is unclear how a new law might leave other religious organizations and individuals who adhere to biblical marriage vulnerable to attack.

Liberal groups such as the National Education Association and the ACLU were empowered by the lack of a red wave in the midterm elections and have quickly built bipartisan lameduck support for the law by assuring Republicans that religious freedoms are fully covered. However, Utah Senator Mike Lee, who has been a leader in trying to stop the legislation stated, “This sets in motion a [dangerous] sequence of events,” he told Family Research Council President Tony Perkins soberly after the vote. “It’s likely to culminate in the removal of tax exempt status from religious institutions … that harbor or share a religious belief about the definition of marriage and whether they accept same-sex marriage.” Why? Because the bipartisan “fix” was a farce. “This is a shell game that ends in the … destruction of religious liberty in America.”

Alliance Defending Freedom president and CEO Kristen Waggoner recently opined in an article in World, “Right now, government officials across the country—including the Biden administration—argue in court that individuals and religious organizations who love and work with people from all walks of life should face civil and criminal penalties if they don’t abandon their beliefs on this issue. Faith-based adoption and foster placement agencies are denied the opportunity to serve needy children. States deny parents equal support if they choose religious schools with the ‘wrong’ views on marriage. Governments force gospel rescue missions to hire people who deny the gospel. The RFMA addresses none of this. It instead fuels hostility towards Americans who hold beliefs about marriage rooted in honorable or philosophical premises. It imposes a new obligation to recognize same-sex relationships on religious organizations that work closely with government. It creates new tools for progressive activists and the Department of Justice to enforce that obligation. It gives the Internal Revenue Service a new argument for taking tax-exempt status away from religious non-profits. It makes religious freedom and free speech cases harder to win by elevating the federal government’s interest in same-sex marriage.”

Many conservatives are similarly concerned the legislation will be used to prevent the state of Alabama, and others, from challenging the currently reigning ideology of same-sex marriage and the entire affirmation agenda that comes along with it. Some political and religious moderates have simply capitulated and see no need to further defend biblical marriage.  Others believe this bill is a reasonable compromise position that will stave off other more radical bills under consideration like the Equality Act. Both Sen. Tommy Tuberville and Sen. Richard Shelby held the line in a procedural vote last week. Twelve Republicans joined Democrats in the cloture vote. The question remains regarding how Senators will vote on final passage. The correct answer for this (nothing new under the sun) legislation can be found in the word of God, but the political answer is unclear as politicians and families across America pause to celebrate Thanksgiving. The irony isn’t lost on those who open their eyes to see it.

Our family will gather around our table for a feast this week and we will likely sing what has become known as the Thanksgiving hymn. An unknown author penned the words that are fitting both for this week and as Americans continue the fight for both tolerance and religious freedom.

“We gather together to
to ask the Lord's blessing;
he chastens and hastens
his will to make known.
The wicked oppressing
now cease from distressing.
Sing praises to his name,
he forgets not his own.

Beside us to guide us,
our God with us joining,
ordaining, maintaining
his kingdom divine;
so from the beginning
the fight we were winning;
thou, Lord, wast at our side,
all glory be thine!

We all do extol thee,
thou leader triumphant,
and pray that thou still
our defender wilt be.
Let thy congregation
escape tribulation;
thy name be ever praised!
O Lord, make us free!”

May we not forget the heritage and responsibility handed down to us by the Pilgrims themselves as we navigate the newest waters of religious intolerance and discrimination here at home, this year and beyond.

Stephanie Holden Smith is an experienced policy analyst, political commentator, and public speaker. Smith has worked and volunteered in Governmental Affairs in Alabama since 1997, including lobbying for a Fortune 500 company and serving as Deputy Director of Finance for the State of Alabama. She is currently the principal of Thatcher Coalition LLC. To contact Stephanie, please go to http://thatchercoalition.com.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information Commentary@1819News.com.

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