Director, Commonwealth Policy Center

When the NFL’s regular season opened in 2016, perhaps the most talked about fact was going on off the field, on the sideline. 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick made headlines when he was filmed sitting down, separated from his teammates, during the national anthem at a 49ers preseason game. When Kaepernick explained to media later that his action was a protest against racial injustices, national publications, social media, and TV talk shows exploded in response, with many coming to Kaepernick’s defense, though some condemned his seemingly unpatriotic display.

As other NFL players have followed Kaepernick’s lead, it’s important to emphasize two things. First, American citizens have a right to protest the national anthem. American liberty means very little if athletes or others are threatened to act contrary to their conscience, even when such action concerns the national anthem. Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with the reasons, we should absolutely affirm that Americans can and will exercise their constitutional rights.

Secondly, we need to affirm this right especially in places where it is most threatened. NFL players are protected by powerful labor unions, and their demonstrations have landed on the friendly side of most major media outlets. There is likely no real threat to the exercise of their liberty. On the other hand, Christians and other religious Americans are facing very serious threats to their liberty, and don’t have the same amount of power and clout at their defense.

Christian educators are increasingly pressured to agree with contemporary gender ideology in the classroom. Just this year, we’ve seen efforts by the legislature in California to force Christian universities to treat gender identity like race, or face losing federal aid for students. More recently, a report by the US Civil Rights Commission openly denigrated and scare-quoted “religious liberty” concerns, and dismissed them as smokescreens for bigotry. These are government institutions with the force of law, not just progressive pundits.

If NFL players have the right to protest the national anthem, then why don’t other Americans have the right to exercise their conscience when it comes to religious beliefs about sexuality, marriage, or gender? Why do national media quickly make the First Amendment case for Colin Kaepernick, but encourage the legal prosecution of Christian charities, schools, and businesses? This is one of the most obvious and blatant double standards in American culture today. An attack on the consciences of some Americans is an attack on the consciences of all.