Freedom of Religion, Freedom from Religion

By Doerr, Edd | The Humanist, May-June 1993 | Go to article overview

Freedom of Religion, Freedom from Religion


Doerr, Edd, The Humanist


On March 8, 1993, a committee of the Maryland Senate held a hear, ing on a bill that would compel public-school teachers and principals to "require all students to be present and participate in opening exercises on each morning of a school day and, voluntary . . . to meditate and pray silently." I presented testimony against this bill (for reasons which I will return to later) on behalf of organizations dedicated to defending freedom of religion.

Some people would undoubtedly say that I testified on behalf of freedom from religion, not freedom of religion. They would probably argue that freedom of religion is not the same thing as freedom from religion, that the former but not the latter is a fundamental right. On the other hand, some secularists who object to certain public manifestations of traditional religion might express a mirror-image viewpoint--that freedom of religion is not enough and that freedom from religion is a right that should be specifically protected.

It seems to me that freedom of and freedom from religion cannot and should not be distinguished. Let me explain.

Puritans and pilgrims were Protestants who immigrated to New England largely because they desired freedom from the Anglican establishment in England. (They disliked Anglicanism because it was, to them, too much like Roman Catholicism.) So, too, Roger Williams and his followers set up shop in Rhode Island because they sought freedom from the Puritan establishment in Massachusetts. Sephardic Jews settled in Rhode Island to escape various European religious establishments. Anglicans and Baptists in Connecticut opposed that colony's Puritan establishment.

English Catholics settled Maryland to get away from Protestant establishments in their home country, while French Protestants came here to escape the Catholic establishment in France. Many British Anglicans came to Virginia and the Carolinas because they did not like Cromwell's Puritan establishment, while Quakers settled in Pennsylvania to avoid impositions on their freedom in England. In 1825, a boatload of Norwegians--many of them Quakers --arrived here for freedom from the Lutheran establishment in their land. In short, many of the early immigrants came here for freedom of religion, which was, to them, the same thing as freedom from the imposition on them of someone else's religion. Unfortunately, many of those who came here for freedom of religion for themselves were reluctant to extend that freedom to others. As one wag put it: the Puritans so loved religious freedom that they wanted to keep it all to themselves. Monuments to transplanted European establishmentarianism and intolerance are the statues on the lawn of the Massachusetts state capitol of Anne Hutchinson, expelled from the colony in 1638 for the crime of holding unauthorized religious gatherings in her home (and, though the legend on her statue's pedestal does not mention it, being of the wrong gender to lead religious discussions), and Mary Dyer, executed on Boston Common in 1660 for the crime of being a Ouaker.

To a great many Americans of the colonial and immediate postcolonial periods, freedom of religion was equivalent to freedom from someone else's relgion. And by the time of our armed struggle for independence from Great Britain (1775 to 1783), substantial numbers of Americans were ready to break with colonial and European establishmentarianism. They traded in the outworn "divine right of monarchs" for the Jeffersonian republican view that "governments are instituted among men" in order to secure inalienable and fundamental rights, that governments "derive their just powers from the consent of the governed," who have the right to "alter or abolish" a government that does not protect their rights or enjoy their consent.

When the state delegations met in Philadelphia in 1787 to--as it turned out--design a national government based upon the principles articulated in the Declaration of Independence, they carefully crafted a constitution for a secular government of bmited and delegated powers, one which gave to government no authority whatsoever to meddle in religious matters and which specifically prohibited mandatory oaths of office and religious tests for public office. …

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