In 1942, Desmond Doss joined the U.S. Army to help support the war effort. As a Seventh Day Adventist, however, he would not carry a gun or engage in violence. Doss’s officers tried to force him to give in or get out; Doss was persecuted, made fun of, and even beaten. But he would not give in. He was a patriot, and he was a man of principle.
Eventually, during the Battle of Okinawa, at a place the 96th Infantry Division called Hacksaw Ridge, Doss bravely risked his life to save the lives of 75 of his fellow soldiers. As a result of his heroism, he became the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor.
Today, we as Americans celebrate Religious Freedom Day. Religious freedom is quite literally our first freedom. It is the first freedom codified in the Bill of Rights. But more than that, it is the freedom upon which most of our freedoms truly rest. At its core, religious freedom assumes that all people have the right to hold convictions about the world, and to live those convictions out. Indeed, what could be more important, more essential, more foundational to human freedom, than recognizing each person’s pre-existing natural right to live in light of the purpose of our existence as each person understands it? And what, then, could be more tyrannical than a government that says you cannot?
Our Constitution says to dissenters like Desmond Doss: many may disagree with you, but you are welcome here. Your views may not be widely shared, but you may have them. And while many may disagree with your convictions, you too may live out your faith in the public square. Just like the 96th Infantry Division with Doss, this kind of freedom makes us stronger.
Religious freedom is not a luxury, nor is it old-fashioned. It is our first freedom upon which so much of our civic liberty truly depends. I thank God that we the people have chosen to protect this freedom in both the Wisconsin and United States Constitutions.
Brian Hagedorn is a judge on the District II Court of Appeals and is a candidate for the Wisconsin Supreme Court.