Freedom of Religion

June 1992

Today in America, freedom of religion is slipping away from us. We are losing it because we have not taken care to preserve it. We are losing it because too many Americans do not understand what freedom itself means and how it works. Freedom is a loaded word, a symbol like the American flag. We know it is good and that we should defend it, but how can we be sure we are really defending it if we don't know what it is where it comes from?

Democracy and Freedom

Is it democracy that makes us free? Democracy is an essential feature of the American form of government. Instead of a king making law by edict, we vote on how we are governed, and the will of the majority prevails. It is called majority rule, and is widely felt to be the strength of democracy as a form of government. It was the main idea presented in the American Declaration of Independence. "We, the people..." forms the government, and its ultimate authority is derived "...from the consent of the governed."

Today democracy and majority rule are commonly invoked to justify the mingling of religion with government. The assertion is that if the majority want to mix state and church then that is how it should be. That is "the American way." If the majority of Americans want prayer in the public schools then we should have it. That is majority rule. It does follow from the simple definition of democracy, but American democracy is not that simple.

Democracy alone is not enough. It lacks an essential element, an element that makes this country a free country, an element that is lacking in other democracies of the world. There is a difference, but what is it?

The answer again is the Declaration of Independence. "We hold these truths to be self-evident ..." it states, that all Americans must have "inalienable rights," such as "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." History shows that Americans refused to adopt the Constitution of United States until it contained a "Bill of Rights." That Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution as the first ten amendments.

The Bill of Rights defines the official civil rights of every individual American. This is where the U.S. Constitution provides us with the inalienable rights referred to in the Declaration of Independence. But just what does "inalienable" mean here?

For the answer to that question, we refer to the U.S. Supreme Court whose function is to interpret the Constitution. In the 1943 case of West Virginia State Board of Education versus Barnette (319 U.S. 624) the Supreme Court ruling contained the following explanation: "The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials, and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts. One's right to life, liberty, property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections."

There you have it. Civil rights take precedence over majority rule. That is what an inalienable right means and it is a fundamental principle of American government. In the American brand of democracy the American government guarantees and protects the civil rights of the minorities as defined by the Bill of Rights, even if a majority are not willing to do so. That is what makes America a free country, and distinguishes it from other simple democracies. This is what we must understand about freedom in order to preserve it. A lynch mob is majority rule. Majority rule is not "the American way" when civil rights are at stake.

Freedom of Religion

Our first right guaranteed in the first line of the first article of the Bill of Rights, is the right to freedom of religion. Again, if we as a people do not understand what freedom of religion means, and where it comes from, it can be taken away from us by our own government, and we won't even know it. There are crucial principles to be understood:

  • Freedom of Conscience
  • Pluralism
  • Tolerance
  • Governmental Neutrality
  • Separation of State and Church
  • Freedom From Religion

The basic idea of freedom of religion is that no one, especially the government, is allowed to force religion on anyone else or prohibit anyone from practicing a religion. To force others to support a church or profess belief in a church's tenets is as much a violation of their civil rights as is preventing them from practicing their religion.

One component of freedom of religion is freedom of conscience. This is the freedom to hold and express our ideas sincerely. It s our civil right to accept or reject any religion or religious idea, and to do so openly and honestly without fear or coercion.

Americans used to be proud of that. The unity we felt as a nation, in spite of our plurality of religious ideas, found expression in our original national motto. E Pluribus Unum, Latin for "One Out of Many". We called it Pluralism and valued it as a strength derived out of our freedom; from the historic divisiveness of religion. Pluralism is the willingness to put aside religious differences and work together for mutual prosperity. It is what the words "one nation, indivisible" in the original version of our Pledge of Allegiance referred to, before the divisive words "under God" were inserted.

Pluralism depends on social tolerance of a variety of opinions about religion. The pre-Revolutionary American colonies had been intolerant. Each colony had its own official church supported by tax money. Failure to attend was against the law and other churches were outlawed. Tolerance is the elimination of all such discrimination by government.

To guarantee freedom of religion, the First Amendment specifies two restrictions on government must not promote the establishment of religion or prohibit its free exercise. These two restrictions often tend to oppose each other, so the key to freedom of religion is striking a neutral to religious ideas and institutions, granting them no special privileges or exemptions. This is what is meant by separation of state and church.

In the majority opinion of Wallace versus Jaffree (83-812, 1985), Supreme Court Justice John P. Stevens wrote, "The individual freedom of conscience protected by the First Amendment embraces the right to select any religious faith or none at all." Freedom of conscience thus guarantees that the right to freedom of religion includes the right to freedom from religion.

A civil right to freedom from religion is also supported by the establishment clause. It states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." If the purpose was simply to proscribe favoring one religion over another, as some religionists maintain, it should read "..respecting the establishment of a religion." If it said "a," the assertion would be that government is forbidden from favoring Islam, say, over Pentecostalism. The lack of the indefinite article "a," however, makes it clear that it is religion in general, as opposed to non-religion which may not be established.

Freedom Diminished

Ironically, it is the very religious that are leading the campaign to deprive us of freedom of religion. Every time they get the government to support and promote their churches and doctrines our freedom of religion is reduced. With tax-exempt funding they lobby the government, claiming the right to do so under the Free-speech and Free-exercise Clauses of the First Amendment. Powerful and ambitious, they have been increasingly successful at persuading government to impose religion and religious ideas on us.

To accomplish this they have to twist the meaning of freedom of religion in the minds of the public officials and the public at large. Government cannot promote the tenets of specific religions such as prayer and "God", without violating the American values of freedom of conscience and pluralism. On the other hand, the ultra-religious cannot overtly challenge these values without drawing attention to their subversion of civil rights.

Instead they pay lip service to the words "freedom of conscience" and "pluralism" and then ignore their meanings and applications. The faithful in and out of the government are easily deceived by this. They readily accept this approach at face value and fail to notice the inherent contradiction.

Another tactic is distortion. They have perverted the meaning of tolerance to their advantage. They have managed to convince most of the American public that criticism of churches and religious ideas is persecution.

As a result, anyone who publicly criticizes a church or a religious idea is characterized as intolerant, discriminatory, rude, and therefore a bigot. The nation's media cater to this distortion and are quick to sensor statements directly critical of church leaders or the ideas they promote. It is as if churches have a First Amendment right to freedom from criticism.

This is turning the First Amendment on its head. Tolerance is the elimination of real acts of persecution by government. In every other area of endeavor, criticism is properly considered a valuable tool for filtering the nonsense out of flawed ideas. The editorial pages of our newspapers are filled with criticism and even ridicule. Both freedom of expression and freedom of conscience protect the right of individuals to criticize religious ideas. Criticism is not persecution.

Another distortion, one that has recently appeared in Utah newspapers, is that tolerance means that people should tolerate the use of religion by government. This is also backwards. It is the government that is constrained to be tolerant of the people's freedom of religion. That means neutrality. That means staying out of religion altogether.

Religious extremists have also been successful in distorting what separation of state and church means. They do it by undermining the idea of neutrality, injecting a bias in favor of religion.

They tip the balance in favor of the Free-exercise and Free-speech Clauses at the expense of the Establishment Clause. This movement of distortion has come to be known as government accommodation of religion.

Accommodationists attach a qualifier to the word "neutral." They refer to a "benevolent neutrality" or a "respectful neutrality" of government towards religion, and claim that to be the true meaning of separation of state and church.

Of course, if government is any more respectful or benevolent towards religion than non-religion, it is not being neutral. Any special privileges or exemptions for churches or religious ideas are incompatible with the requirement for neutrality. The terms "benevolent neutrality" and "respectful neutrality" are simply oxymorons.

The Supreme Court ruled on this issue on June 5, 1985, when it rejected Alabama's moment of silence for voluntary prayer in the public schools (Wallace versus Jaffree, 83-812, 1985). The court concluded that Alabama's purpose was to "convey a message" that the state was endorsing prayer as a "favored practice." "Such an endorsement is not consistent with the established principle that the government must pursue a course of complete neutrality toward religion." The word neutrality is clear enough, but in view of the trend toward distortion of the word, Justice Stevens found it necessary to add the word "complete."

Theism vs. Freedom

The most sinister distortions originated in the early 1950's as a part of the McCarthy Era paranoia. In that climate of fear, religionists seized the opportunity to subvert the position of freedom as the central, essential value of American government, and to substitute theism in its place. Belief in "God" was advanced as the litmus test to distinguish true Americans from "godless communists." Red baiters across the nation associated patriotism more with theism than with freedom.

The claim itself is entirely specious. Socialists and communists distrusted both religion and government. They rejected religion because they did not want it to be used as a tool of government. The United States instituted separation of state and church for the same reason.

Separation of state and church and the secularization of government are characteristics that the United States and Soviet Union have in common. Both nations were established in rebellion against theocratic states. Other countries, like England, Ireland, and Iran, have officially established state religions. In those countries, churches control the enactment of laws, and the governments officially claim to derive authority from the gods of their established churches.

The authority of the U.S. government is derived from "We the people..." The U.S. Constitution is completely secular and devoid of any reference to a god. Given that the Greek roots of the word atheist mean "without" (a) "god" (theos), the U.S. Constitution is literally an atheistic document.

While religion is indeed an effective tool for controlling people it ought to be apparent by now that its use by government presents a real threat to individual freedom. The threat presented by the Moslem fanatics in Iran is readily apparent, but Americans conveniently forget that we fought two World Wars against Christian troops from Germany. The words Gott mit uns (God [is] with us) adorned the belt buckles of both the Kaiser's troops and Hitler's storm troopers.

Nonetheless the campaign to establish "God" belief as the paramount American value and to associate patriotism with theism was largely successful. The subversion of freedom to a secondary position has been accomplished in many people's minds.

Legal Precedents

Distorting the meaning of freedom of religion was the first tactic, ignoring its supporting principles was the second, and usurping the place of freedom with theism was the third. The fourth tactic was to get laws enacted based on those distorted precepts. By serving as legal precedents those laws effectively legitimized the distortions.

A series of such laws were passed in the early 1950's (the McCarthy Era). For example, on June 14, 1954, the words "under God" were added to the pledge of allegiance to make it read "one nation under God." America is supposed to be one nation under a constitution, but this law now instructs everyone that our Constitution is officially secondary to the word of "God."

Public Law 140, signed by President Eisenhower on July 11, 1955, was another one (31 U.S.C. 324a). It required that all coins and currency bear the motto "In God We Trust." Originally, all American money was secular. It wasn't until 1864 that "In God We Trust" first appeared on an American coin at the instigation of a Baptist minister. Theodore Roosevelt discontinued the practice, but it was subsequently reestablished for certain coins. American paper money had remained completely secular up to 1955.

This was followed by Public Law 851 signed by President Eisenhower on July 30, 1956, which replaced our traditional national motto E Pluribus Unum with "In God We Trust" (36 U.S.C. 186). In making belief in a generic god a precondition for patriotism, the American tradition of pluralism was effectively declared null and void. The First Amendment has not been repealed, but this new legal precedent had the same effect as far as freedom of religion was concerned.

Mr. Allen then talked about the history of the prayer cases in Utah, much of which has been in the news, and space doesn't permit printing that part of his presentation. He did state that it is very possible that the forces for the amendment permitting public prayer are strong enough to change the law. He stressed that it is very important for everyone to do everything possible, to oppose this by writing to legislators, newspapers, and circulating petitions to send to your legislator. To help this, petitions have been sent to Chapter members.

--Chris Allen