Freedom of Religion, Freedom from Religion: Can They Coexist?

A balcony at the Newseum in Washington, DC

Find out what happens when a Center for Freethought Equality intern challenges a former Becket Fund litigator!

I just finished a seminar on religious freedom and civil dialogue at the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, DC. It was called a boot camp for a reason: the sessions (each three hours long for three consecutive weeks) were packed with lectures, information, case studies, and discussion. We managed to go in-depth into the foundations and origin of religious freedom in the United States; the US religious landscape; the free exercise and establishment clauses of the First Amendment; how to properly practice civil dialogue; and religious liberty and the law. We even fit in a tour of the six-floor Newseum, where the seminars were held.

The experience was illuminating in contrast to the misconceptions, uninformed claims, and politicization surrounding religious freedom in the media and everyday life. However, the seminar also made me recognize the liberal, secular bubble I grew up in and continue to live in as it revealed just how much of the foundation, culture, and legacy of the United States is inseparably intertwined with a belief in a god and adherence to a monotheistic religion.

The first day of the seminar was dedicated to studying the impact of the Anglican Christian tradition on religious freedom today. Although the dominant narrative is one of America as a beacon of religious freedom and a refuge for religious dissenters to live and practice freely, the instances of the Puritans in Massachusetts, Jews and Anne Hutchinson in Rhode Island, and Quakers in Pennsylvania are, in reality, exceptions to the rule. In Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, on which our federal Bill of Rights was based, James Madison only established the “fullest toleration” of religious exercise. Drawn from Queen Elizabeth I of England’s 1689 Act of Toleration, this religious toleration clause in Virginia’s Bill of Rights simply decriminalized religious nonconformity and gave people of all (Christian) beliefs the opportunity to obtain a license from the state to preach. When Thomas Jefferson proposed the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in 1779, it was struck down in favor of promoting religious uniformity and stability in the new state. Baptists were prohibited from preaching and gathering—and forget about Catholics or people of non-Christian religions.

When the free exercise of religion clause was finally added to the Virginia Declaration of Rights, and subsequently to the Bill of Rights, it needed Christian influence to pass. When the founding clause establishing the basis of religious liberty across the country directly references Christian values, it’s no wonder the taboo against atheists, humanists, secularists, agnostics, freethinkers, and the nonreligious is so strong in American society.

The Religious Freedom Institute attempted to present a well-rounded, rational, intellectual narrative of the tensions between religion and the state. In our session about religious literacy and the religious landscape in the United States, the presenter emphasized that the proportion of white Christians is declining; 31 percent of people in the US ages eighteen to twenty-nine are religiously unaffiliated; 1 to 2 percent of Catholics also identify as atheist; and people who identified as most religious scored lowest on a test on religious traditions and principles.

We were challenged to expand our beliefs regarding what it means to be religious and how we can best protect religious freedom for people of all religions and none. The second session included a lecture by a pastor from the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, an organization that works toward the most balanced and equitable separation of the institutions of church and state. Our lecturer clearly explained the tensions between church and state in key civil areas (i.e., prayer in government gatherings, church autonomy, religion in public schools, religious displays on government property, and government funding of religion). Although her religious beliefs clearly informed her values, I could not detect a religious bias in this lecturer’s work, as she used only the law to explain how the courts had resolved issues of religious liberty versus the public interest throughout US history.

Unfortunately, I was reminded on the last day how much work humanists and atheists still must do to prove that we are moral people without belief in a higher power and that we don’t want to wipe religion from the world entirely. Our final lecturer, a former litigator for the Becket Fund, presented a talk called “The Right to Be Wrong: Why Religious Freedom Belongs to Everyone.” Once she started her talk, it was clear she only supported religious freedom when it came with a belief in a higher power.

The presenter began her lecture by stating that she wanted to protect religious liberty from both the “pilgrims,” who want to advance one religion and prohibit the others, as well as the “park rangers,” who aim to “ban all faiths.” She went on to present some of the cases she had worked on, including a 2015 case against the Freedom From Religion Foundation concerning a statue of Jesus displayed on government property. In this case, which she described as an example of “park rangers” attempting to limit religious liberty, our lecturer claimed that secular advocacy groups worked to politicize religion and remove it from the public sphere entirely, violating the right of religious groups to practice.

I was absolutely stunned. The seminar had been so balanced until this moment. But this lecturer, who claimed to be “above” politicization of religious liberty, clearly believed that nontheists should not be afforded the same right to expression of belief as those with a belief in God.

When I raised my hand, announced that I was interning for the American Humanist Association, and proceeded to explain that the AHA does not, in fact, advocate for the erasure of religion from American society but rather advocates for nonbelievers to be afforded the same rights as believers and for the government to not preference religion over nonreligion, there were audible murmurings from the audience. I explained that just as she had advocated for the rights of prisoners to wear religious garb and study the texts of their faith traditions, the AHA had litigated for humanist prisoners to observe Darwin Day and form study groups to discuss texts important to their beliefs.

Although I had put myself in an uncomfortable situation and deliberately outed myself as an atheist to this group of representatives from predominantly Christian organizations, I had a duty as a humanist advocate to speak up, correct the lecturer’s claims, and ensure that humanist voices were involved in the conversation. I appreciate the effort the Religious Freedom Institute exerted to create an (almost completely) balanced seminar focused on intellectual and legal interpretations of religious liberty, (almost) unclouded by personal emotional bias. Although the US has made progress, the seminar reinforced how much of American legal tradition and society lives by the belief, proudly claimed by our last lecturer, that “Because religious impulse is natural to human beings, religious expression is natural to human culture.” Much work remains to show that religious impulse is not natural to all of us, and that moral, ethical alternatives to religious expression can coexist peacefully with a belief in God in today’s world.