As I sat speaking with Johnson, I noticed that while holding the sign, she had been reading a copy of the Koran. Her fiancé is Muslim, and she says she finds "a lot of peace" in the Koran, as well as many familiar stories of Biblical figures, such as Abraham (Ibrahim), Noah (Nuh), Moses (Musa), and Jesus (Isa). Her freedom to do this, despite the fact that some leading politicians of the day express hostility toward Islam, is protected by the First Amendment, too. The government can neither tell you what religion to practice, nor prevent you from practicing whatever religion you choose. This includes not only mainstream religions with billions of followers, but also Zoroastrians, Baha'is, and even members of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. It also protects atheists from being forced to practice any religion at all. The increasingly desperate anti-abortion movement has recently tried to use this as an excuse to avoid doing things they'd prefer not to (such as operate companies that must offer workers health-care coverage that includes contraception). Of course, there's a balancing test here: the workers' right to personal privacy is a strong counterweight.


As Johnson and I conversed, we were exercising our right of peaceable assembly. From 1715 to 1967, it was law in England that any gathering of 12 or more people could be forcibly broken up if the authorities did two things: 1) claim (truthfully or otherwise) that it was an unlawful or unruly group, and 2) read the group the Riot Act (this is the origin of the idiom), specifically the following text: "Our Sovereign Lord the King chargeth and commandeth all persons, being assembled, immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably to depart to their habitations, or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the act made in the first year of King George, for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies. God Save the King!" In hopes of heading off this sort of thing from continuing in the colonies, the Founding Fathers specified this right.


Johnson is also engaged in a legal process of seeking the return of her children from foster care. She has done this through letters and phone calls to various officials in DHHS; her right to do this, as well as her protection from reprisals or retribution for making those complaints, is also protected by the First Amendment.


What Johnson was complaining about being denied, and what she was seeking with her communications with DHHS officials, was equal protection under the law, first introduced in Article IV, Section 2, but further codified in the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868. This right requires government to treat all people fairly in official proceedings, with reference to evidence and proper procedure.


This Fourth Amendment right also plays into Johnson's situation: She objects that government agents were prying into her family's business unnecessarily. This right is often construed as the "right to privacy" (though that word never appears in the Constitution), or, as future Supreme Court Associate Justice Louis Brandeis put it in an 1890 Harvard Law Review paper, "the right to be let alone." As a state-approved caregiver for an elderly person, she accepts home visits from that person's state caseworker with no problem. But when a child-protective caseworker visited her home as a result of complaints from a neighbor, Johnson objected. There are, of course, limits to this individual right — such as when the well-being of a vulnerable person is in question, or when police officers swear out search warrants, seeking a judge's permission to enter private premises in the process of enforcing the law.

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