The so called freedom of religion is established in the first Amendment. That Amendment forbids the establishment of a state religion, a required religion by implication, and guarantees the free exercise of religion. Taken at face value, freedom of religion could be construed as the right to do anything at all if done in the name of religion, so this freedom is especially problematic. Our history is full of sticky issues which involved the “free exercise” of religion- polygamy, child marriages, honor killings, witch trials, exorcisms, even slavery.
One person’s religious practice is another’s moral or even legal violation. So most people probably admit and the Supreme Court has confirmed that religious freedom has limits. The question then is what are those limits- established laws, local cultural norms, the Golden Rule? How is religious freedom to be managed without undue restraint or religiously sanctioned oppression.
A reality which always clouds any real discussion of religious freedom is the evident fact that religious freedom is a favorite political football, readily invoked to excite a powerful part of the electorate. In countless ways the idea of religious freedom can be used as a rallying cry and psychological tool to attract support. Even completely irreligious politicians recognize and utilize this fact.
Religious freedom within a society which espouses equality of all men and the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is an even more complex issue. Our religious traditions are based almost exclusively on Orthodox Christianity and its institutional church.
The doctrine of this religion proclaims a basic inequality across humanity, a dichotomy of the God accepted and the God rejected. This dichotomy assigns a moral and by extension intellectual superiority to some and thereby marginalizes the rest. In fact this dichotomy is sold doctrinally as reason to promote separation from and suppression of the less worthy, those outside the bounds of the favored religion.
Another important and growing problem within our understanding of religious freedom is the large number of those who are irreligious in some sense. I define this group as those who might identify as atheists, agnostics, spiritually minded but not religiously practicing, and even those who only rarely participate in religion.
What does the freedom of religion mean for this group? Does religious freedom even apply to the irreligious? Many would probably suggest that it does not. In fact many adherents of Christian Orthodoxy state emphatically that religious freedom does not mean freedom from religion. This argument, in effect denies the idea that religious practice has limits. If limits exist, there are freedoms from religion in the form of those limits.
The protection of the irreligious under our concept of religious freedom is especially important because, as I have noted, our traditional religion devalues them dramatically as fully worthy citizens. This devaluation, morally and intellectually, encourages all manner of practice in the name of religion which deals harm to a significant portion of the population. So to this group freedom from religion, i.e. freedom from oppressive religious practice, is paramount- essential if they are to be afforded their due rights under the 1st Amendment.
The counter argument on the issue of freedom from religion declares that a society can never be unaffected by religiously inspired values and norms. Thus public policy must become an extension of the doctrines and practices of the prevailing religion, Christianity in our case. Under this understanding there cannot be and should not be any attempt to protect people from the due effects of religion, i.e. freedom from religion. This is again a tacit denial of any limit on the practice of religion, no matter how harmful those practices might be to various groups.
So the question remains unanswered and largely ignored. What are the limits of religious freedom and will we honor them or not?