Andy Schmookler: ‘Freedom of religion’ can’t mean imposing one’s religion on others

andy schmooklerThe other day I saw in a local newspaper a letter-to-the-editor by a woman I knew some years ago. I’d always regarded her as a lovely person, and I agreed with the belief she expressed in her letter regarding the great importance of “freedom of religion.”

Except that it seemed her notion of what “freedom of religion” means was confused.

Our founders wanted all Americans to be able to believe as their conscience dictated, and to live according to their beliefs. What that meant was that they did not want the coercive power of the state to interfere with such religious freedoms.

To prevent such coercive use of the state, they added a clause that, for more than two generations, has been interpreted by the Supreme Court to mean that the government should remain neutral on religious questions, not one religion over another, nor the religious over the non-religious.

“Freedom of religion,” in other words, means that no Americans will be able to use the power of the government to enforce their religious views on other Americans.

But that very thing – the use of the government to favor her religious views – seems to be what the writer of this letter thinks her own “freedom of religion” requires.

She apparently believes that freedom of religion is impaired if the religion of the Bible is not promoted in our public schools. Because the public schools are part of our political order, the Courts have said, they should steer clear of religious matters. Would she want the schools to read the Quran aloud to the students, or the Bhagavad Gita? Or is it only to the Bible – that she, as a Christian, favors – that the public schools should expose everyone’s children?

She says our religious freedom has been “chipped away” by the idea, “don’t pray in public places.” But no American citizen is forbidden to pray in public places, just as no student in our public schools is forbidden to pray. It is only the government and its agents, with the coercive power they represent, that are supposed to refrain from advancing any religious view over another.

Isn’t there a stark difference between assuring our citizens have full “freedom of religion” and having some of our citizens impose their religious positions on other Americans?

When she complains, in her letter, about “laws being made in direct opposition to God’s laws,” I am imagining that she has in mind such things as gay rights. We should recall that earlier generations, similarly, thought it was contrary to the will of God for black people to be granted rights equal to those enjoyed by whites.

In both those instances, the Court ultimately decided that the whole American ideal of government – that all people are created equal – required that no groups of people be treated as second class citizens.

Does that legal equality of rights interfere with the “freedom of religion” of the letter-writer? I don’t see it. She is free to make her own Bible-based judgments, and to live accordingly. But what she is complaining about is that she and those who believe as she does are not free to make what they believe to be God’s laws binding on everyone else.

It is inevitable that our government will violate – or refuse to enforce — the religious convictions of some of its citizens.

Those who are pacifists on religious grounds, for example, still have to pay taxes to support the U.S. military.

And until a half century ago, there were places in America where – because of the religious beliefs of some — it was illegal for married couples to buy contraceptives. That ban on contraceptives – by which some imposed their religious views on everyone else — was rightly overturned.

The great thing about America is that those who think contraception is wrong are free to live according to their religious beliefs. AND, those who do not share that religious belief are free to live according to their own sense of what is right and sacred.

That is true “freedom of religion.”

I would be heartened if people like the writer of that letter — who complain that America’s laws should conform to their understanding of God’s laws — would embrace the vision of our founders, who understood that, without “a wall of separation between Church and State” (Jefferson’s phrase), a society would invite the kind of religious wars that had been such a nightmare in Europe.

They should also note that the evidence suggests that the kind of joining of the political and religious domains that the letter espouses has elsewhere proved harmful to both domains.

It is widely – and I think rightly – said that the reason that religion is thriving so much more among the American people than among the Europeans is precisely because America’s “separation of Church and State” has protected the religious world from being dragged down into the struggle for power.

And meanwhile, that same separation has allowed the American government to retain the allegiance of Americans of diverse religious and other worldviews.

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