“Religious freedom is treated as a second-class right when we’re looking at other civil rights.”
Andrea Picciotti-Bayer touches on the topic of religious exemption when it comes to the vaccine mandate, as well as other current day issues around religious freedom.
Andrea is the Director of the Conscience Project, an organization focused on advocacy both in legal and public education around the issue of religious freedom.
ANDREA PICCIOTTI-BAYER: And even in the times of a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put on hold.
MAXWELL NOSBISCH: Hello and thank you for joining us once again here at the First Amendment Museum located in Augusta, Maine for this installment of our online One on 1 series. Today, I’m joined by our new special guest, Andrea Picciotti-Bayer. Andrea, would you like to introduce yourself?
ANDREA PICCIOTTI-BAYER: Yes, Max. Thanks so much for inviting me. I’m the Director of the Conscience Project, which is an organization that’s focused on advocacy, both legal and public
education around the issue of religious freedom and conscience rights in America and internationally.
MAXWELL NOSBISCH: Why do you think the First Amendment is important?
ANDREA PICCIOTTI-BAYER: They’re important for civic life and their incredible restraints on the
government, and they’re important because we see that this kind of very capacious understanding of religious freedom in particular allows for individuals, families, communities,
and our country to thrive.
MAXWELL NOSBISCH: Why is religious freedom so important?
ANDREA PICCIOTTI-BAYER: We know in our First Amendment it’s really so important.
We’ve got two clauses that speak to religious freedom. The first is the Establishment Clause and that basically make sure that the government doesn’t take over organized religion but at the same time it allows our country to celebrate our rich religious pluralism and our tradition of pluralism throughout our founding.
And then we’ve got the Free Exercise clause and that allows each individual American both to be able to worship without interference from the government and to be able to contribute to the public square consistent with their beliefs.
MAXWELL NOSBISCH: In your opinion, what are some of the biggest threats to religious freedom in the United States today?
ANDREA PICCIOTTI-BAYER: Well, that’s a really interesting question because the threats have changed and most recently, I think that the greatest threat is that the government – whether it be the federal government, state, or even local governments – are trying to put religious freedom as a second-class right when we’re looking at other civil rights or policy priorities.
And I’m thinking particularly of religious individuals or organizations that hold traditional beliefs related to marriage, sexuality, sexual orientation, gender identity, and the sanctity of the unborn.
And we’re finding more and more that the expansion of anti-discrimination laws are coming kind of at a heads with some of these traditional views. And instead of finding it for exemptions or accommodating religious believers, they’re being told it’s an either-or game, and that’s not the way that we should think about civil rights.
MAXWELL NOSBISCH: What are some of the challenges litigating religious freedom cases in the American court system that you’ve experienced?
ANDREA PICCIOTTI-BAYER: Well in the last couple years, during the pandemic especially, we saw that a number of governors can use their authority, executive authority, to basically do what was called worship targeting. They came up with percentage or attendance standards for worship that were much more restrictive than standards for going to a big box store or, in the case of Nevada, to go to a casino.
It took the Supreme Court several months before they stepped in but when they did, they said, “Look, you cannot treat religion differently than other secular activity and even in the times
of a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put on hold.”
And even in the state of Maine, both Maine and New York have imposed vaccine requirements for healthcare workers, while allowing for medical exemptions, they’re not allowing for religious exemptions.
So, while those controversies are bubbling up in our courts, I think that the Supreme Court’s going to have to again talk about treating religion on the same plane as other interests, other secular interests as well.
MAXWELL NOSBISCH: How do you use your First Amendment freedoms in your everyday life?
ANDREA PICCIOTTI-BAYER: Well, Max, I was thinking about that and I have, you know, the
professional hat and the personal hat.
The professional hat I write a lot. So, the freedom of press allows me to be able to share my ideas in publications without the government silencing or censoring those ideas. I’m also able to contribute with amicus briefs, friend of the court briefs, in cases related to religious freedom and conscience rights and that’s part of our right to petition the government.
But on a personal note, I’m a mother of 10 and I’m a devout Catholic and I try to create the opportunity for them to not only learn about their faith but also how their faith is protected and recognized here in this country. Teaching them about these protections that we have in the
constitution and other laws and really hoping that I can be an example for them in my life so that they can then follow that as they grow and become adults and contribute as public citizens.
MAXWELL NOSBISCH: Well, Andrea, thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate your time and your insights, some of these issues.
ANDREA PICCIOTTI-BAYER: Max, it’s been a pleasure and thank you so much and good luck with all of your programming at the First Amendment Museum.