… [H]ow does a government grant all of its citizens the right to think, believe, pray, write or speak as their conscience dictates, while still maintaining a peaceful society that protects all of its members?
It is easy, in the abstract, to applaud the universal principles of freedom, justice, liberty and equality. These are indeed some of the most noble ideals to which humankind aspires. But all of us who have had the privilege of serving in government know that it is difficult to take these principles and apply them — really apply them — to governing a country. Every country struggles to translate these principles into policies and legislation. The exact challenge each of us confronts stems from our nation’s own particular history and culture. But what binds all free nations together is the fact that we embrace this struggle and seek to make these great principles manifest in how we govern.
It is with this in mind that I want to tell you a little about America’s historic struggles [with liberty, equality and freedom of expression].
One particular aspect of liberty that has long been at the core of American beliefs since our founding has been the liberty of conscience and belief. Thomas Jefferson, one of our nation’s founders, said that “[a]mong the most inestimable of our blessings is that … of liberty to worship our Creator in the way we think most agreeable to His will.” Our first president, George Washington, wrote in a famous letter to a Jewish congregation … that religious freedom was a fundamental right that belonged to all people, not a privilege bestowed by one class of people upon another.