08/01/2012 02:27 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

The First Amendment Goes Both Ways

I get mail. And this week some of it was about the "breaking news" about the couple turned away from the Mississippi church where they were planning to be married because they are black. From the AP report that precipitated the mail:

Charles and Te'Andrea Wilson said they had set the date and mailed invitations, but the day before their wedding they said they got bad news from the pastor of the predominantly white First Baptist Church of Crystal Springs: Some members of the church complained about the black couple having a wedding there.

And here's the message:

Dear Susan,

I just read about the Mississippi couple denied a wedding in the church they attend by the pastor who caved to racism in the congregation. I am interested in learning how do you view the actions of the pastor in this story. Could you share your initial thoughts on this?


This is what I wrote back to him:

Dear Donald,

I think it's an opportunity to remind folks that the First Amendment protects the freedom of religious institutions to be as bigoted, homophobic, racist, or sexist as they want to be, and it protects the rest of us from having that bigotry, homophobia, racism, and sexism imposed on us.

And I think that anybody who thinks what happened at this Mississippi church wouldn't still be normative in this country without "activist judges" and "liberal legislators" needs some remedial reading in the history of the 1960s.

That's what I think. What I know is that the arc of history does bend toward justice, but it's our job to participate in that bending process. The pastor in the story should reread Martin Luther King Jr's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," and the people in his pews should be ashamed of themselves. Those are my initial thoughts.


And with a little time to reflect, here are a few more:

The fact that the First Amendment goes both ways -- providing both freedom of religion and freedom from religion -- is an incredibly important data point to have at the ready the next time someone confuses including LGBT Americans in the "liberty and justice for all" part of the Pledge of Allegiance with an attack on religion.

It. Is. Not. The First Amendment of our Constitution -- "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" -- means that the freedom of the First Baptist Church of Crystal Springs, Miss. to refuse to marry a black couple (or a non-Baptist couple, or a left-handed couple in mixed-fabric clothes serving shellfish at the reception, or a gay or lesbian couple) is protected.

Repealing the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) isn't going to change that. And anybody who tells you that it is going to change that needs to reread both the First Amendment and the Ninth Commandment. (To save you looking it up, that's the "thou shalt not bear false witness" one.) Because, as it says in John 8:32, "the truth will set you free." And the truth is that I can and will disagree six ways to Sunday with a church that refuses to marry a couple because of their race. But I know that because our Constitution protects their freedom of religion, it also protects my freedom of religion -- and it protects your freedom of religion -- right along with the freedom of any American to be free from all religion.

Remember that the next time someone confuses including LGBT Americans in the "liberty and justice for all" part of the Pledge of Allegiance with an attack on religion. Remember that the First Amendment goes both ways and protects both freedom of religion and freedom from religion. And then let's get busy making liberty and justice for all really mean "all" -- because at the end of the day, that is the truth that will set us all free!