The Right to Believe (or Not)
What is religious freedom?
Religious freedom means the right to believe and live by one's religious tradition, or lack thereof, and allows all citizens to shape their lives, whether private or public, on the basis of personal and communal beliefs. Sometimes called the right of conscience, it protects all Americans from government action intended to control the exercise of our thoughtful independence and prohibits the government from supporting or establishing any one faith or personal belief over others.
What are the boundaries of religious freedom?
Like all the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment, religious freedom is not absolute. The government maintains the right to limit religious exercise under certain circumstances. The boundaries of religious freedom can be complicated and frequently change with the courts.
Learn more about specific issues and cases:
Is the United States a Christian nation?
No law establishes the United States as a Christian nation. In fact, the establishment clause of the First Amendment prohibits government endorsement of any one religious tradition, or religion over non-religion. While many of the founding fathers were Christian and certainly held personal religious views, the Constitution was intentionally designed to separate church and state. The First Amendment upholds the ideal that no religion should be codified into law or imposed onto others.
Christianity — especially Protestantism — remains a dominant presence in American culture today, but this does not mean we live in a Christian country. Despite the demographic and cultural dominance of Protestantism in the United States, the First Amendment offers equal protection to religious minorities, including the religiously unaffiliated.
Why does religious freedom matter today?
Warning signs are everywhere. The United States is more deeply divided today than at any time since the Civil War. Our public square has become a contentious battleground where people shout past one another across seemingly unbridgeable distances. Voices once on the fringe are now mainstream, spewing incendiary rhetoric demonizing “the other.” Wars of words often escalate into outbursts of hate and violence. In the current climate of division and contention, it is no exaggeration to say that the future of the American experiment in democratic freedom is now at risk.
Negotiating differences that are often deep and abiding is no easy task in a pluralistic democracy. It requires, first and foremost, a willingness by enough people of goodwill on all sides to reaffirm and renew constitutional first principles – beginning with the inalienable rights guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. A broadly shared recognition that people of all religions, beliefs, and political philosophies have a fundamental right to freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition can generate public support for civic ground rules within which people can debate differences, understand one another, and, when possible, forge public policies that serve the common good.
A good place to begin is at the beginning: Religious freedom, or liberty of conscience, is our “first freedom” – not only because it is placed first in the First Amendment, but because logically and philosophically, freedom to follow the dictates of conscience undergirds all other freedoms. Preventing government from taking sides in religion – among religions or between religion and non-religion – combined with freedom to practice any religion or no religion can ensure a level playing field for all religions and beliefs, including even the smallest minorities. Properly understood and applied, this First Amendment arrangement in religious freedom has the potential to make living with deep differences possible in America today.
“Preventing government from taking sides in religion – among religions or between religion and non-religion – combined with freedom to practice any religion or no religion can ensure a level playing field for all religions and beliefs, including even the smallest minorities.”
Contrary to current demands from one side of the spectrum for a “Christian nation,” the source of American unity can never again be at the expense of diversity as it was for much of our early history. The United States is now one of the most religiously and ethnically diverse societies in the world – and any attempt to re-impose the old order will fail. Instead, we must strive for unity in the interest of diversity, a shared vision of “We the people” that guarantees each person the right to choose in matters of faith and conscience.
The First Amendment provides the charter for peaceful coexistence, including opportunities to reach principled agreements across differences. But such an arrangement is only sustained when individual citizens take responsibility for upholding First Amendment rights for all, especially fundamental rights of conscience. When a commitment to rights is joined to a duty to protect those rights for others, the result is democratic freedom.
What does it look like to take civic responsibility for religious freedom? American history is filled with many striking examples, beginning with a group of Dutch Reformed citizens in Flushing, New Netherland (now New York), who in 1657 signed a remonstrance calling for religious freedom – not just for themselves, but for others. And not just for others, but for Quakers who were widely feared and despised in the colony. Standing up for religious freedom took courage in 1657 – and it often takes courage today.
“[W]e must strive for unity in the interest of diversity, a shared vision of ‘We the people’ that guarantees each person the right to choose in matters of faith and conscience.”
Today we need people of compassion and conviction more than ever. Yes, we have constitutional protections for religious freedom. But history teaches that even the best efforts of lawyers and judges can fail to create a haven for people of all faiths and none. That can only be done by Americans with a civic heart for religious freedom.
That was the message of Judge Learned Hand, given on May 21, 1944, at another critical moment when our nation’s character was sorely tested. He was speaking in Central Park, New York, to a gathering of new American citizens. In the audience were people who had recently arrived from all corners of the globe, most from nations with plenty of laws and constitutions, but with little freedom. Like so many before and since, they came to America seeking freedom, opportunity and hope.
Here is part of what Judge Hand said:
“I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there, it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it.”