“While every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree”
The First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion, just as it forbids the official establishment of a religion. The latter, by implication, protects the free expression of all religions.
President George Washington made this clear in his famous letter to a Rhode Island synagogue: “May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
What does it say about us that 18th century America was a safer place for worship than it is today? In 2023, we can only yearn for the days when houses of worship were seen as sanctuaries by all. Friday’s conviction of a 50-year-old hater for the killing of 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in 2018 is a reminder how just much our free exercise of religion is endangered in the most basic of ways.
The largest such shooting of a house of worship occurred in Sutherland Springs, Texas, when a deranged man killed 26 worshipers, from ages 5 to 77, in 2017. Two years before that, a white supremacist killed nine worshippers at a prayer meeting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. There has been violence and threats since against churches, synagogues, and mosques.
Somehow, as a nation, we must recognize that the free exercise of religion must begin with the most basic right of all – the right to live to worship freely.