Today U.S. Senator Ben Sasse spoke on the Senate floor, criticizing a concerning report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights regarding religious liberty. Sasse argued that the report reveals a disturbingly low view of religious liberty and urged Republicans and Democrats to defend our First Freedoms.

Senator Sasse's remarks, as prepared for delivery, are found below: 

Mr. President, 

I rise today to address the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights’ recently released report titled, “Peaceful Coexistence: Reconciling Nondiscrimination Principles with Civil Liberties.” 

The Commission on Civil Rights has a profound history in our nation. Founded in 1957, it initially had the grand cause of ending the horror and the tragedy of Jim Crow laws in our nation.  

Sadly, however, the Commission’s focus has now strayed, and its recent report poses profound threats to the historic American understanding of our First Amendment.  

In the Commission’s new report, the majority reveals a disturbingly low view of our First Freedoms. It puts “religious liberty” in scare quotes, and says it must now be subservient to other values.  

Here is a snapshot of the majority’s position, in its own words:

Progress toward social justice depends upon the enactment of, and vigorous enforcement of, status-based nondiscrimination laws. Limited claims for religious liberty are allowed only when religious liberty comes into direct conflict with nondiscrimination precepts. The central finding which the Commission made in this regard is:

Religious exemptions to the protections of civil rights based upon classifications such as race, color, national origin, sex, disability status, sexual orientation, and gender identity, when they are permissible, significantly infringe upon these civil rights.”

Additionally, the Commission’s Chairman Martin Castro noted that,

The phrases ‘religious liberty’ and ‘religious freedom’ will stand for nothing except hypocrisy so long as they remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Christian supremacy or any form of intolerance.

But are the phrases “religious liberty” and “religious freedom” simply hypocritical code words and shields for phobias, intolerances, or power struggles? 

Of course they are not. 

Religious liberty is far more beautiful, far more profound, and far more human. Our national identity is actually based on that very premise. 

The American Founding was unbelievably bold. Our Founders were making the claim that almost everyone in the history of the world had actually been wrong about the nature of government and human rights. 

Our country’s Founders believed that God created people with dignity and we have rights via nature. And their conviction matters for today’s conversations. It is our Constitution, in fact. 

No king, no Congress, no Commission gives us our rights. Government is not the author or source of our freedoms. 

We have rights because we’re people, created with dignity and government is our shared project to secure those rights. And so, “We the People” give the government authorities; the government doesn’t give us rights. 

Gail Heriot—a member of the Commission—offered a compelling statement and rebuttal to the majority’s low view of religious freedom. Thankfully, she indicated her opposition to the Chairman’s bizarre dismissal of religious freedoms and considered asking him to withdraw it. But then decided “it might be better for Christians, people of faith generally, and advocates of limited government to know and understand where they stand with him.” 

Ms. Heriot notes, and here I’ll quote her at length:

The conflicts that can arise between religious conscience and the secular law are many and varied. Some of the nation’s best legal minds have written on how the federal and state governments should resolve those conflicts. But no one has ever come up with a systematic framework for doing so—at least not one that all Americans can agree on. And perhaps no one ever will. Instead, we have been left to resolve the issues that arise on a more or less case-by-case basis.

While she does not aim to create that framework in her remarks, she notes:

The bigger and more complex government becomes, the more conflicts between religious conscience and the duty to comply with the law we can expect. 

Back when the federal government didn’t heavily subsidize both public and private higher education, when it didn’t heavily regulate employment relationships, when it didn’t have the leading role in financing and delivering healthcare, we didn’t need to worry nearly so much about the ways in which conflicts with religious conscience and the law arise. Nobody thought about whether the Sisters of Charity should be given a religious exemption from the Obamacare contraceptive mandate, because there was no Obamacare contraceptive mandate. The Roman Catholic Church didn’t need the so-called Ministerial Exception to Title VII in order to limit ordinations to men (and to Roman Catholics), because there was no Title VII.

She continues…

The second […] comment I can make is this: While the targeted religious accommodations approach may sometimes be a good idea, it is not always the best strategy for people of faith. Targeted religious accommodations make it possible for ever-expanding government bureaucracies to divide and conquer. They remove the faith-based objections to their expansive ambitions, thus allowing them to ignore objections that are not based on faith. The bureaucratic juggernaut thus rolls on. People of faith should not allow themselves to become just another special interest that needs to be appeased before the next government expansion is allowed to proceed. 

They have an interest in ensuring the health of the many institutions of civil society that act as counterweights to the state—including not just the Church itself, but also the family, the press, small business and others. They also have an interest in ordered liberty in all its manifestations. A nation in which religious liberty is the only protected freedom is a nation that soon will be without religious liberty too.”

Are people of faith simply another special interest group that needs to be appeased? I suggest—along with Ms. Heriot and the Founding Fathers—they are not. People of faith—or no faith at all—are simply exercising their humanity. They do not need government permission to do so. 

The Commission’s report is titled “Peaceful Coexistence.” But this profession of “Peaceful Coexistence” must never quietly euthanize “religious liberty” because Washington lawyers find it convenient to do so. 

It must never be used to chip away at our most fundamental freedom. 

It must never undermine the essence of what it means to be human. 

It must never erode the American creed – which should unite us.  We can and should disagree, and we must jealously defend every right to conscience and self-expression.  

In closing, I ask my colleagues from both parties to consider the dangerous implications of this report: 

To my progressive friends: I invite you to be liberals again in your understanding of religious liberty and its merits. 

To my conservative friends: let us cheerfully celebrate our freedoms. Let us kindly dismantle the pernicious myth that somehow your freedoms are merely a cover for fear or hate. 

These freedoms are too important to relinquish. 

Thank you Mr. President. 

I yield back.