We Must Defend Religious Freedom

Today is Religious Freedom Day in the United States, a celebration of one of our most important values. The date marks the anniversary of the passage of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, which was enacted into law by the Virginia General Assembly 233 years ago today. The Statute makes a compelling case that freedom of religion must be a centerpiece of any democracy, arguing that attempts to impose religious views on a populace lead to ” habits of hypocrisy and meanness”, and restrict the natural rights of the person.

Humanists in particular find much to cheer in Jefferson’s Statute. Although he framed his argument in theistic terms, speaking of a creator God and mobilizing that concept to defend religious freedom, he nonetheless stressed that human beings are fallible, and that therefore no authority (civil or ecclesiastical) should impose their beliefs on others. Jefferson rails against forced contributions to religious groups and leaders, arguing that everyone should decide for themselves whether to support a religion or a pastor with their money. And he makes the forceful declaration that “our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry” – a position which, if followed to its logical conclusion, would defend the civil rights of those of all religions and none, Humanists included.

In the political sphere, Jefferson stressed that no citizen should be prevented from holding public office due to their religious beliefs: to do so would “[deprive them] injuriously of those privileges and advantages, to which, in common with [their] fellow citizens, [they have] a natural right”. This is a vital principle at a time when there are exceedingly few openly Humanist public officials at any level of government: belief in God still seems to be a litmus test of political respectability in the minds of many.

Most important, though, is that Jefferson understood that just as religious freedom must mean the freedom of individuals to choose a religious path for themselves without fearing reprisal or discrimination, it must also mean that no one is offered special benefits because of their religious views. In the Statute he stresses that a person’s “opinions in matters of Religion…shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.” That “enlarge” is critical, because today our democracy faces many attempts to enlarge the civil capacities of some citizens because they hold particular religious beliefs.

Across the country so-called “Religious Freedom Bills” now make the argument that some citizens, because of their religious views, should have the right to discriminate against other citizens, or to make decisions regarding how their employees should use their healthcare benefits. This has nothing to do with those citizens’ right to their own religious beliefs: my religious freedom is not threatened when someone else chooses to live by a different set of beliefs. Rather, it is the attempt by some unscrupulous lawmakers to twist the definition of “religious freedom” so that it enlarges the civil capacities of their supporters to such an extent that they can burden others with the consequences of their own religious faith.

This trend must be resisted. If religious freedom is to remain a meaningful idea, we must return to a proper understanding of the term. We should all be free to choose our own religious path, without fear of sanction or pressure from the government. But we should all be bound be the same laws, without seeking to use our own religious views to win special privileges. We have the right to choose our own religion, but not the right to force others to live according to its dictates. The first is religious freedom – the second religious tyranny.