Freedom of religion has been much in the news these days. It might be worthwhile to explore a little of what it means. Where did the idea of freedom of religion come from? Two sources come to mind right away: the Pilgrims, and the First Amendment to the Constitution.
Let’s take the Pilgrims first. Fleeing to the New World from religious persecution in England, they landed at Plymouth Rock in the fall of 1620. They were calvinist Puritans who rebelled against the papist tendencies of the Church of England, which, in turn, made their lives miserable. They hoped to be free in their new home to practice their faith in their own way. They weren’t interested in the freedom to worship for anyone else. It was their way, punishment, banishment, or death.
Why so puritanical? Convinced that they knew the right way to worship God as reformed Protestants, they were equally convinced that other ways were corrupt, probably infected by the devil himself. They had to be careful to keep their own community from becoming infected by the same. The much larger Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded in 1628 not far away. Although financed by mercantile interests, it was populated by other Puritans who followed the same strict adherence to religious practices that outlawed all others.
It took a long time for anything like freedom of religion to take root in the New World. Other Christian denominations set up their own colonies with their own rules outlawing other forms of worship. Roger Williams, a Baptist who established Providence Plantations (Rhode Island) in 1636, was the first to talk about separation of church and state, and tolerated other forms of worship in his territory. No one followed his lead. Open minded as he was, he believed other ways of worship, especially in the Church of England, were hopelessly corrupt, including his Puritan neighbors to the north, but he tolerated them.
Colonial freedom of religion meant freedom only for the established denomination in each colony. All others were not free. What about non Christians? Apart from a few stray Jews, some form of Christianity was the only religion that came over from Europe. Don’t be too hard on them. They were people of their time trying to do what they thought was right within the constraints of what they were able to know and understand, and their times were very confusing. Thanks to the Reformation, denominations were springing up right and left, each claiming to have the truth no one else had. The new science of science, and the explosion of secular philosophy, rattled the foundations of long held beliefs. It made a certain amount of sense to stake one’s claim on one way of believing safe in its own corner of New World.
It couldn’t last. The colonies got too crowded for each to exist as if no others did. People didn’t stay put. Wherever they went, they brought their ways with them. Economy driven politics led to a war of separation from England, and the unification of colonies as states forming a nation, which brings us to the First Amendment.
The Constitution was adopted as the law of the land in 1789, after several years of floundering around under Articles of Confederation that never worked very well. The first ten amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, were added in 1791. The first one reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for redress of grievances.”
There’s been a lot of recent talk about the legislative intent of its authors. Examining what they wrote certainly offers insight and wisdom, but legislative intent is not law, and what the law means is what the court says it means. The court, being presided over by humans, is constrained by what the justices are able to know and understand, just as the Pilgrims were. Over the years, they have adjusted the meaning as new knowledge, new ways living, and new understandings of what is permissible have come along. What they say it means today isn’t what will be said a century from now. That’s the way it goes.
Among the new things for our time has been a much greater appreciation for what human rights are, and how they get expressed as civil rights. A human right can be proclaimed, but only a civil right can be enforced. It gets pretty basic. Slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person in the original Constitution. They didn’t have the right to be a full human, or, as a practical matter, human at all. Indians weren’t counted, so they didn’t exist. The post Civil War 14th Amendment recognized former slaves as whole, free persons, but it wasn’t enforced fully until the mid 1960s. Women were counted, but had no right to voice or vote. They got it in 1919. American Indians had to wait until 1924. What is or isn’t a human right is always up for debate, and we haven’t figured it out yet.
Not that we haven’t tried. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the newly formed United Nations in 1948. It remains a set of unmet goals against which each nation’s civil rights are measured. To be sure, the nations of the world have been making progress, and that’s a good thing. But not to digress too far, it’s time to get back to freedom of religion in the U.S.A.
What is it? About the time we think we know, it changes. For Americans in the 21st century, it’s the assurance that government cannot establish a religion, nor do anything that gives preference to one form of religion over another. Government can’t force religious practices or beliefs on anyone. Government can restrict persons from forcing their religious practices on unwilling others. Every person is free to worship, or not, as he or she pleases.
There is a debate right now about whether a person holding religious beliefs can discriminate against others who don’t in the course of doing business in the public marketplace. Generally speaking the answer is no. If you own a store or run a business open to the public, then any member of the public who wants to buy from you must be allowed to do so. You can’t be forced to sell something that’s against your religion, but whatever you do sell to the public must be available to all without discrimination.
It sounds simple but gets testy because religion is important. Religious faith addresses the most fundamental questions about what it means to be human, what the world around us means, and what role God plays in it. Even my atheist acquaintances are deeply concerned about how religion impacts their right to disbelieve. The spiritual but not religious, and those who don’t give it much thought, live in communities defined in part by the religious heritage of the pioneers. Religious practices touch our rawest nerves and most vulnerable parts of our souls. In spite of our treasured separation of church and state, the religious faith of legislators and executives has always influenced their decisions. It can’t be helped.
What can be helped is to engage in the discipline of respect for each other’s beliefs and practices, and to do what we can to see that they are not abridged or interfered with in any discriminatory way. It’s not incompatible with proclaiming your religious faith to others, hoping they will be inspired to join you in worship. They’re certainly free to do so, and so are you.