Less than a week after former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, during CNN’s LGBTQ forum threatened to strip mosques, synagogues, and churches of their tax-exempt status if they don’t bless same-sex marriages, U.S. Senator Ben Sasse, R-Neb., introduced a joint resolution condemning the unconstitutional attack and called on Republicans and Democrats to reaffirm basic First Amendment principles.
Watch his speech below:
The transcript of his speech is below:
Mr. President, I come to the floor today to ask each and every member of Congress to answer this simple question: is it right for the United States federal government to get into the business of policing Muslims’, Jews’, and Christians’ religious beliefs about whether or not they are acceptable? Is it the business of the federal government of the United States to determine true and false religion?
Last week, a former member of Congress didn’t blink an eye – a former member of Congress now running for President didn’t blink an eye when he announced that he would strip religious institutions – colleges, churches, and other not-for-profit service organizations. He would strip them of their tax-exempt status if they don’t agree with his political positions.
That’s a pretty major departure from what America is and what we usually talk about in this body. So, we should pause, and we should call that what it is. That is extreme intolerance. It is extreme bigotry. And it’s profoundly un-American. The whole point of America is the First Amendment, and the whole point of the First Amendment is that no matter who you love, and no matter how you worship, we believe in America that everyone, everyone is created with dignity.
This is a fundamental American tenet. It’s why this country was founded. And because we are all created with dignity, none of us have the right to dictate the conscience commitments of other people. The freedom of the conscience is a fundamental American belief and thankfully politicians have no business policing that. At the end of the day, there are really just two kinds of societies: there are societies that are about force and power, and there are societies that are about persuasion, about assembly, and about love. And for more than 230 years, we’ve decided in this country that we are the latter. We are a community of persuasion, not primarily a community of power and force. In America we don’t think the center of life is defined by government, we think the frame of life is defined by government.
Abraham Lincoln often, sort of apocryphal summarizing George Washington, used to talk about the sliver frame and the golden apple. In America the government is just the sliver frame, it’s the structure that defines the frame work for order of liberty so that the golden apple, the good, the true, and the beautiful, the things that you love and that you want to build, you go do by persuading people to join with you in a cause. Government doesn’t define the center.
Washington, D.C. is not the center of American life. Washington, D.C. is supposed to be a servant community that exists to maintain a framework for ordered liberty, guards us against enemies foreign and domestic so that your household and your neighborhood and your place of worship can be the center can be the center of life. We are not Chinese communists who take Uyghurs and throw them into camps. We are not Russian oligarchs who tell journalists what they can and can’t write. We are not Venezuelan strongmen who beat the hell out of protesters.
We’re Americans. And in America we disagree about many things; we disagree profoundly and vigorously, but then we come together and we create a system where we work out our differences, not with fists but with words. We work out our differences with civility and tolerance, respect, and persuasion. All of this starts with the First Amendment.
The five freedoms of the First Amendment – religion, speech, press, assembly, and protest – define who we are as a people and what we believe in common, and guess what? You can’t separate these five. These five freedoms are all in the same amendment for a reason because if one of them falls they all fall. They stand or fall together and you’re a hypocrite if you pat yourself on the back for defending one of these five freedoms and then the next day when another one is unpopular say “well we don’t need that one we can throw it over board.”
The five freedoms are interconnected, interdependent, and all in that same amendment, the First Amendment, for a reason. These are the rights of conscience that belong together and they cannot be taken or policed by government. So that means that if a Texas politician pandering for a sound bite decides to make a bold-faced threat against Muslims, Jews, and Christians, all Americans from every faith and every walk of life, we have an obligation to come together and to defend our freedoms. So we should do that.
That’s what I’m here on the floor today to do. I’m introducing a simple resolution today that would give every member of Congress, the House and the Senate, the opportunity to tell our constituents whether or not we still believe in the First Amendment. It’s an opportunity to show the American people that bigotry against religion in the name of partisan politics is not permitted in our system of government.
This isn’t a Republican or Democratic premise, it is an American idea that we condemn politicians who say they’re going to police other people’s religious beliefs. Congress doesn’t target or punish organizations that are exercising constitutionally protected rights. This really shouldn’t be complicated. Government doesn’t rifle through your pastor’s or your rabbi’s sermon notes, government doesn’t tell your clerics what they can or can’t say, government doesn’t tell your religious leaders how they will perform their services, government doesn’t tell you where or when you will worship. Government doesn’t teach our kids how they’re to pray, and government doesn’t lecture you on heaven and hell. Government’s job is not to define true and false religion, that’s something much closer to the center of the frame, the golden apple. The silver frame is the humble job we have to do in public life which is to maintain a framework for ordered liberty so that Americans in their neighborhoods and over dinner tables can try to persuade each other how to worship and what to believe by arguments, not by fists, and not by the police. Government doesn’t get to do any of that in this country because we recognize that government is not God.
Americans reject the divine right of kings, and we reject the infallibility of politics. Government doesn’t try to make an example of your church or your synagogue or your mosque because some politician decided your views were out of favor. Your religious organization doesn’t get taxed differently because a politician running for office decides to disagree with one of your beliefs. We believe, whatever faith you’re from in America and whatever party you’re in, we believe in America that all 225 million of us are created equal. And we believe that whether your faith is traditional or progressive, it is yours. It’s between you and your religious community and your God. It is not the domain of politicians.
Government can’t force you out of the public square because of the faith you hold. At least that’s what we’ve always believed in the past. It’s what we’ve believed for more than 200 years. We’re not perfect, of course. We’ve fallen short of that idealism time and time again. That doesn’t mean the ideas of the American founding and the first amendment are wrong. It means that our ideals need to be strived for yet again, and reaffirmed.
So, I want to give every member of Congress the opportunity in the coming weeks to do just that. So the resolution that I’m introducing today ought to get a vote so House and Senate members can be on record for our constituents about whether or not we affirm the First Amendment and, in particular, the free exercise of religion and the free assembly clauses. So I’m going to read it for everyone’s benefit. It’s pretty short. This is the resolution just being introduced:
Whereas the settlement of the 13 colonies was driven in part by those seeking refuge from government-sponsored religious persecution;
Whereas the Framers of the Constitution of the United States recognized the centrality of freedom of conscience to the establishment of the United States, enshrining in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States that “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”;
Whereas churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious organizations have played a central and invaluable role in life in the United States; and
Whereas Congress has recognized the importance of religious institutions by enacting a variety of legal protections for those institutions, including exemption from income taxes: Now, therefore, be it
Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That—
(1) the protections of freedom of conscience enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States remain central to the experiment of the United States in republican self-government under the Constitution of the United States;
(2) government should not be in the business of dictating what “correct” religious beliefs are; and
(3) any effort by the government to condition the receipt of the protections of the Constitution of the United States and the laws of the United States, including an exemption from taxation, on the public policy positions of an organization is an affront to the spirit and letter of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.
I don’t care what some nitwit said on CNN last week to satisfy his fringy base and try to get a sound bite in a presidential debate. The American people ought to know that this body stands for the historic First Amendment, that’s what we all took an oath to uphold and to defend and that’s what we ought to vote to affirm again. Let’s do it.
Thank you, I yield back.