What exactly is Freedom of Religion? It seems to mean something different to different people, but what would be a correct definition? To examine this, we should probably begin with the concept of Freedom. Freedom, I think we can all agree, is a lack of restriction of some sort. When we speak of Freedom of This or Freedom of That, we are focusing on limiting the extent to which society, or at least government can restrict what we do, including the area of mandating or forbidding any given aspect of that Freedom. So we could readily see that to claim Freedom of Religion is to both allow unrestricted practice of religion and to forbid any religious practice from being mandatory or coerced. As with all Freedom, there is no reality in which Freedom is absolute. In general, any practice that infringes upon the freedom of another cannot coexist with that freedom. An old adage is that “your right to swing your fist ends just before it hits my face.” That is, for us to have freedoms, we have to recognize boundaries.
Let’s try a parable: If I am preaching a sermon in my church, and another preacher demands that I yield the pulpit to him, am I limiting his freedom if I refuse or is he trying to limit mine by trying to take over? If I happen to have been allowing him to hold a service at my church for many years, but my congregation and I decide that he is no longer welcome, would it be an infringement on any of his rights to ask him to go away? What if he was preaching at his service that those who follow our denomination’s teachings are sinful and should be shunned? In either case, I would say, no, it is no infringement on his rights or the rights of his congregation if we do not welcome them and provide a forum to them. After many years, they may feel that it is their right to be there, and feel that they are being persecuted for their belief, but even if it is their belief that makes them less welcome, it is not an infringement of any rights if we choose not to help them practice their flavor of religion. Now, if my congregation buys up all of the property in town and will not sell or lease to them because of their message, then yes, we are infringing upon their rights, because we would be actively trying to limit their freedom, not simply refusing to aid them. Whether our property rights supersede their religious rights would be a matter of important discussion on its own and not the focus of this discussion. The question is at what point do limits of the free exercise of religion become infringement? And the answer is at the point where it is limited by something other than the protection of the rights of others.
One of the common statements made by members of the majority religion is that Freedom of Religion does not mean Freedom from Religion. While this catchy phrase is true in some contexts, it is not true in all contexts. Clearly, someone could not claim to be free if they had to hide their practice from others. But in the parable above, the Freedom of Religion of my congregation meant the Freedom from the incursion of the Religion of the other preacher who demanded I yield the pulpit. In fact, our initial definition of freedom included that it was both a lack of restriction, but also a lack of requirement. If you are only free to do as you are told, then you cannot call that a state of freedom. So, my religious freedom does not extend to being able to force another religion out of town, but it does rely on being able to prevent another religion from forcing me out.
Let’s try another analogy. If I stand in my yard throwing rocks at my fence, it is quite different from standing in my yard throwing rocks at your fence, or standing your yard throwing rocks at my fence, or standing in your yard throwing rocks at your fence. Let’s listen in on a conversation in which you might recognize annoying patterns that are all too common:
Agnes: Why are you throwing rocks at your fence?
Theo: I am free to do so, are you trying to take away my right to do it?
Agnes: No, but I wish you wouldn’t. It is an annoying noise and it makes the fence look ugly.
Theo: Okay, I’ll throw rocks at your fence.
Agnes: No, that’s my fence and I don’t want it messed up.
Theo: Okay, then I’ll stand here to do it.
Agnes: If I told you I didn’t want you to throw rocks at my fence, why would standing in my yard make a difference?
Theo: You just said that you would not stop me throwing rocks at my fence in my yard, so how is it different doing the same thing in your yard?
Ages: It’s my fence!
Theo: Fine! I’ll throw them at my fence!
Agnes: Not from my yard!
Theo: But you just said it was about your fence! Now you’re changing your story! You just don’t want me to throw rocks and you’ll say anything to limit my freedom!
Agnes: You are not welcome in my yard, and those are my rocks that you are helping yourself to. Go away and give me my freedom.
Theo: Okay, then, I’ll stand in the street.
Agnes: Well don’t block traffic and don’t bust up the pavement to get more rocks.
Theo: Who are you to limit my right to bust up the pavement and block traffic in the exercise of my right to throw rocks?
Agnes: It’s not just me, the community owns the street and we should not all have to pay for your wish to throw rocks, when you were free all along to stand in your yard and throw rocks at your own fence.
Here is the pattern in an argument concerning Freedom of Religion:
Agnes: Your scripture is not everybody’s scripture, so it is not appropriate to make everybody listen.
Theo: Oh, so you are going to try to shut down my Church?
Agnes: No, but I think you could be a more considerate neighbor.
Theo: Well if they accepted our faith they would not mind
Agnes: But they have their own faith and they should have the same rights you have.
Theo: But they do! They can listen to our proclaimed word just the same as we do!
Agnes: But you are disrupting their ability to raise their own children in their own faith.
Theo: First you say it’s about their freedom, and now you say it’s about their children! You’ll say anything to stop us from exercising our religion!
Agnes: Other people have rights and yours are not more important.
Theo: But we have a majority, and it is the will of the people that our religion is proclaimed everywhere, not just in our church, but in the halls of government and in the schools! You would have us give up our democracy for just because you don’t believe in the truth!
Agnes: We are all guaranteed Freedom of Religion, and that means that your religion is not more important no matter how big the majority is. You don’t get to use the government to spread your faith, period. You are free to practice your religion and try to convince people to practice it, but this does not make spreading your faith appropriate in all situations. You are also not free to coerce anyone to into your religion by official humiliation of those who do not subscribe.
Theo: Why would anyone want to live in a country that did not officially recognize our God?
These two dialogues are not meant to belittle anyone’s faith. I do not equate the destruction of throwing rocks with following a religion. The choice was to highlight the concept of freedom. Freedom is only freedom if you can do something that others would prefer you did not do as well as things that are good. Too often, we hear people claim that they are being silenced and their freedom of speech infringed because someone told them they were wrong, or that what they said was mean, or if they lost their job as a spokesperson because they were not representing their employer as their employer wished to be represented. We hear people claim that their religious freedom was infringed when they were not provided with a platform, or if their invitation to participate in some event is contingent on their agreement to show respect for other religions also participating, or even contingent on refraining from using the event as a religious event. We also hear accusations that an attempt to block the use of government to express religion is an infringement on their freedom rather than a protection of the freedom of others who are less powerful. To appreciate what Religious Freedom is, we must be frank about what it is not. It is not a matter of which religion holds the majority vote. It is not an entitlement requiring everyone to listen to you and respect your opinion. It is not threatened in any way, but is in fact better protected when government has nothing to do with religion.