Freedom from Religion: The First Amendment Protects Non-Belief, Too

Church & State, October 2000 | Go to article overview

Freedom from Religion: The First Amendment Protects Non-Belief, Too


"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. …

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Freedom from Religion: The First Amendment Protects Non-Belief, Too
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