Monday, March 23, 2015

On Religion, The First Amendment Works Both Ways

A letter published in the Hunterdon County Democrat screamed, “Tragedy Looms!” Robert A. Loss writes:

Hearing some of the preliminary talk regarding the 2016 presidential election, I sense a true tragedy in the making, [the election of] another liberal, un-American president” who doesn’t understand that “the Constitution is the ‘supreme law of the land.’”

Apparently, Loss doesn’t understand the constitution, either. His very next paragraph reads:

The First Amendment of our Constitution states we have the right to free exercise of religion, so why does any court entertain any lawsuit pertaining to the display of a nativity scene or any other Christian celebration? Any religion has the Constitutional right to exercise their religious beliefs and there is nothing in the Constitution that says anything about “the separation of church and state” - whatever that means.

In the comments, David Ivester did a pretty good job of explaining to Loss exactly what “separation of church and state” means:

I’m happy to answer Mr. Loss’s question.It is important to distinguish between "individual" and "government" speech about religion.The constitutional principle of separation of church and state does not purge religion from the public square--far from it. Indeed, the First Amendment's "free exercise" clause assures that each individual is free to exercise and express his or her religious views--publicly as well as privately. The Amendment constrains only the government not to promote or otherwise take steps toward establishment of religion.While figuring out whether someone is speaking for the government in any particular circumstance may sometimes be difficult, making the distinction is critical. [sic]

I left this reply to Ivester, under my screen name “Zemack”:

I would add that freedom of religion extends beyond religion to all personal belief systems. The Founding Fathers used freedom of religion and liberty of conscience interchangeably. They intended that government be neutral, promoting (establishing) neither religious nor non-religious beliefs, and protecting the free exercise and expression of all personal belief systems.

I would also add that the Constitution cannot be understood outside of the context of the Declaration of Independence, the philosophic blueprint for the Constitution. The meaning of “unalienable rights” is that the exercise of one man’s rights cannot infringe on another’s. “Unalienable” establishes the parameters within which one may exercise his rights, and beyond which his exercise cannot go, and best summed up by the saying, “Your right to swing your arms ends where my nose begins.” This means no one may force others to pay for their “free exercise of religion,” which is exactly what happens when religionists want to use tax-funded government property such as courthouses to display their religious symbols. Loss wonders “why does any court entertain any lawsuit pertaining to the display of a nativity scene or any other Christian celebration?” But this issue only pertains to government buildings such as courthouses and schools. If such displays are allowed, it implies government sanction or establishment. No one has ever suggested that private individuals be forbidden to express their beliefs on private property, or privately on public property. On the other hand, if an employee of the government, such as a public school teacher, uses his position as a government employee to express his religious beliefs, that cannot be tolerated under the First Amendment.

Loss apparently forgot the rest of the First Amendment, such as the part that states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” which precedes the part about free exercise he references. Perhaps if he read the whole thing, he’d understand what separation of church and state actually means. Legally walling off religion and political power is the only way to protect freedom of religion and conscience, and foster peaceful coexistence among people of all beliefs.

As I wrote in Freedom Of Religion Demands Freedom From Religion for The Objective Standard:

In a political context, freedom means the absence of initiatory physical force or coercion. Those who promote the idea that there is no freedom from religion undermine the First Amendment, reject the separation of church and state, and seek to impose their religious beliefs through government force.

If freedom of conscience is to continue in America—which means: if America is to continue being even semi-free—Americans must understand and embrace the principle that freedom of conscience entails and requires freedom from religion.

Related Reading:

America Was Not Founded as a Christian Nation

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