Thursday, October 27, 2016

Considering freedom of religion

We talk a lot about freedom.  How well we actually understand the concept is unclear.  No where is this more apparent than with freedom of religion.

Freedom of religion is enshrined in our Constitution, in Amendment 1, where it clearly states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ..." (The rest of the amendment deals with other freedoms.) It is the first freedom mentioned in what we know as The Bill of Rights.  These go back to 1791 and were clearly important to the framers.  So, I think most people would agree that this freedom is legitimate in an historical sense.

But when discussing any freedom there appears to be some disagreement about what is meant.  In future posts, I will deal with each in turn, but here I would like to focus solely on "freedom of religion" as indicated in Amendment 1.

You may have noticed that the phrase, "freedom of religion" does not itself appear in the Constitution.  That is merely how we commonly refer to it.  The Constitution says plainly that Congress cannot establish a state religion or prohibit the expression of religion.  That effectively removes our law-making body from the subject.

Yet ... here we are in 2016 arguing over religion in schools, in the workplace, in medical centers.

Growing numbers of Americans reject all religion outright. Others practice various religions, many of which have conflicting tenets. Many are some version of Protestant Christianity and Catholics also have large numbers in the US.  Some, however, practice non-Christian religions, from standard Judaism to arcane Druidism, Wiccan, and many others.

So, if we are to set aside the Constitution and establish religion as a guiding force for our citizens, which one would be chosen? And how would we choose it?

The answer, of course, is that we cannot do this.  Religion, whether it is prayer in schools, prohibition of medical procedures in hospitals, or tests for religiosity in order to hold public office are all unconstitutional.  That is the very essence of "freedom of religion."

Some have parsed that phrase saying the Constitution meant that we have no freedom "from" religion, only of which one we may choose.  That shows both ignorance of the Constitution itself and of prepositions.  For "of" means precisely "direction or distance from," and expresses the relationship between "freedom" and "religion."

Freedom of religion as expressed in our Constitution means that the government shall take a hands-off approach to religion in all ways. It will not endorse or establish one religion over the other nor will it prohibit any citizen from practicing any religion.

So where does that leave our heavily Republican, religious right? It leaves them free to practice whatever religion they choose, but they cannot, by law, force their beliefs on others nor prohibit conflicting practices.

Yes, this is controversial but it should not be because the Constitution says in plain English that religion is not a function of law.  You cannot get around this.  If one is opposed to abortion or same-sex marriage on the basis of religion, no one can force them to have an abortion or marry someone of the same gender. However, they cannot deny those rights to others who do not share their religious beliefs.  That is how freedom works.

Piety is not a value in our common law.  In every country where it is, it results in not just denying others' the freedom to worship, or not, as they choose, but also to eventual oppression and civil war.

Pray all you like.  Have as many children as you choose.  Wear whatever makes you happy.  But leave the rest of us alone!