Sen. Mike Lee: Religious freedom thrives in US because America is ‘a nation of heretics’

U.S. Senator Mike Lee, R-Utah, addresses the Conservative Political Action conference (CPAC) in Washington, February 11, 2011.
U.S. Senator Mike Lee, R-Utah, addresses the Conservative Political Action conference (CPAC) in Washington, February 11, 2011. | Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Sen. Mike Lee of Utah said the United States has a strong history of religious freedom because it's “a nation of heretics.”

Lee was one of multiple guest speakers at an event on Tuesday sponsored by the International Center for Law and Religion Studies about religious freedom in the Americas.

During his comments, the senator said that “in a country like ours, in the United States of America, basically everyone falls into” the category of being a religious minority “in one way or another, at one time or another.”

“One of the reasons why religious liberty has been able to flourish here is because we are a nation of heretics,” said Lee. “We were founded by heretics, and we breeded more heretics.”

“And I am one of them, and I am proud to be one,” he added, jokingly alluding to his being a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“That’s how you foster religious freedom. You learn to respect heresy. Because people have a right to believe and worship and otherwise exercise their religious freedom.”

In response to his comment about “heretics” helping to foster religious freedom, The Christian Post asked Lee how he believed the much-documented rise of religiously unaffiliated Americans might impact religious freedom.

Lee responded that he believed it was “important to outline” religious liberty “on the outset and agree that we're going to defend it, agree that the principle needs to be defended, regardless of its popularity.”

"As religious people, those of us who are religious, also have to understand that as more people count themselves among the non-religious, we become as a group even more of a minority. Each one of us, who belongs to a different sect of purported heretics, becomes even more heretical," he asserted.

“Remember, beliefs that are mainstream generally don't have to be litigated because generally, government will defer to those because governments don't want to run afoul of what the majority of people think. That's exactly why it is so important to stake out the principle in advance."

Lee’s remarks were part of a panel event titled “Fulton, Pavez, and the future of Religious Freedom in the Americas,” which centered on two religious freedom cases.

The first was the unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, in which the high court ruled that Philadelphia cannot exclude Catholic Social Services from its foster program because the organization will not place children with same-sex couples for religious reasons.

Chief Justice John Roberts delivered the court's opinion, concluding that “the city has burdened the religious exercise of CSS through policies that do not meet the requirement of being neutral and generally applicable.”

“Government fails to act neutrally when it proceeds in a manner intolerant of religious beliefs or restricts practices because of their religious nature,” wrote Roberts.

“The refusal of Philadelphia to contract with CSS for the provision of foster care services unless it agrees to certify same-sex couples as foster parents cannot survive strict scrutiny, and violates the First Amendment.”

While Lee liked the Supreme Court decision overall, he critiqued some of the court's opinion, believing that the justices should have used the case to overturn the 1990 Supreme Court decision Employment Division v. Smith, which held that the First Amendment allows enforcement of generally applicable regulations that happen to burden the religious practices of some.

Lee referred to the Smith case as “a dangerously wrong turn” by the Supreme Court that was “a break from precedent” and “utterly detached from” the Constitution and English legal tradition.

“We couldn’t come up with the majority of the justices who were willing in this case to overturn Smith. This was a really good opportunity,” he continued.

The other discussed case during the event was that of Sandra Pavez, a Chilean teacher who taught religion classes at Cardenal Antonio Samoré Municipal School, but was fired in 2007 after she entered a same-sex relationship.

Pavez filed legal action, with the Chilean Supreme Court ruling in favor of the school in 2008. She later appealed to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which heard arguments in May.

In addition to Lee, other featured panelists included Montse Alvarado, vice president and executive director of Becket; Branislav Marelic, an attorney representing Pavez; Juan Navarro Floria, a professor at Pontificia Universidad Católica in Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Tomás Henríquez, senior counsel for OAS and Latin America with ADF International.

The event was bilingual and partially virtual, with Marelic and Floria giving remarks in Spanish and presenting their views via livestream rather than in person.

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