Freedom From Religion

The First Amendment

"The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion."

Of all the misguided claims made about the First Amendment, this is perhaps the most insipid. For years it was a stock phrase of the Religious Right, recited frequently by men such as Pat Robertson and his shock troops. Now, unfortunately, it has spread beyond the confines of America's modern-day Puritans. Within the past 18 months, Vice President Al Gore and Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman have said the same thing.

A moment's reflection should show why this phrase is nonsensical. Religious freedom would be meaningless if it didn't include the right to reject religious belief as well as embrace it. Thomas Jefferson certainly realized this. When legislators in Virginia debated his landmark Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786, efforts were made to limit its guarantee of religious liberty to Christians only. In other words, Virginians would be free to profess any religion they wanted as long as it was a Christian denomination.

Jefferson knew that this was not true religious freedom. The proposal was rejected, and Jefferson's bill passed in its original form. Years later Jefferson rejoiced in the fact that his legislation protected "the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohometan, the Hindoo, and the Infidel of every denomination."

But freedom from religion is not a concept that protects only non-believers. Many challenges to official prayer in public school have been filed by religious people who disagree with the prayers being recited. This was the case in Santa Fe, Texas, site of a famous battle over school-sponsored prayers before football games that reached the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year.

The Santa Fe case was brought by two families one Roman Catholic and one Mormon who were tired of the fundamentalist Protestant slant of the prayers offered before the games. These families were making a declaration of their desire for freedom from religion too. They already had a religion of their own choosing and did not want another one foisted on their children by government fiat.

And that's true of all Americans. When you exercise your freedom of religion and become a Methodist (or a Mennonite or a Muslim), at the same time you exercise your freedom from religion and refrain from becoming a Baptist (or a Buddhist or a Baha'i).

Robertson, Gore, Lieberman and everyone else who has ever uttered this phrase need to understand that freedom of religion and freedom from religion are complementary concepts, not conflicting ones. One cannot survive without the other.

They need to remember the words of a wise Supreme Court justice, Robert H. Jackson, who in 1952 summed it up best: "The day that this country ceases to be free for irreligion, it will cease to be free for religion."