What Is Freedom of Religion and Religious Freedom?
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution declares that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ..."
That apparently wasn't clear enough for Theocrats, so in 1947 the U.S. Supreme Court drew upon Thomas Jefferson's correspondence to clarify that there should be "a wall of separation between church and State." (You can read the full quote below.)
However, that 1947 Supreme Court ruling, nor any of the other writings of the Founders on the subject of religion, are not clear enough for today's Theocrats, so we obviously need to clarify the First Amendment.
The “free exercise” of religion clause in the Constitution does not mean, or even imply, the right to impose one’s religious beliefs upon others. In fact, the proceeding prohibition of any "law respecting the establishment of religion" makes it clear that any such imposition, especially in the public domain of government, is prohibited.
Jefferson was absolutely right that the prohibition of any law respecting the establishment of religion was intended to build a wall of separation between church and state, and that the “free exercise” of religion clause was intended to give people freedom to practice their religion, so long as such practice does not infringe upon the rights of others. Therefore, we cannot, and must not, impose our religious beliefs on others.
Most of us understand that, and we know what religious freedom is, or should be. But some theocratic religious people are grossly misinformed and misled, and, as we all know, the consequence is that the world is plagued by Theocrats who believe their religion entitles them to rule in the name of God.
We should call them what they are, because the Theocrats are hypocrites who distort the purpose of their religion to suit their theocratic political agenda. In the Mid-East they claim to be adherents of Judaism or Islam, and in America they are right-wing evangelical fundamentalist “Christian” Dominionists. But they all believe their religion gives them the right to rule.
In fact, American Theocrats act as if freedom of religion and religious freedom means freedom to try to impose their religious beliefs upon others. They simply ignore or deny what freedom of religion actually means, and they persist in taking theocratic political actions to force others to comply with their theocratic decisions based on religious beliefs.
In America the Theocrats simply don’t care or deny that the U.S. Constitution forbids that. But the Constitution declares that government shall “make no law regarding the establishment of religion,” and “prohibit any religious requirement for holding office.” That is what the 1st Amendment and Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution actually say, and many other writings of America’s Founders made their intent very clear, as you will see.
In spite of the facts and the truth, the American Theocrats claim they are exercising their religious freedom. But they twist and distort the meaning of religious freedom by claiming that it means they are free to try to impose their religious beliefs on everyone else, and even deny others their rights on the basis of religious belief. Thus they simply ignore or deny what freedom of religion actually means, and they twist the meaning to justify their theocratic political actions.
That is why we must establish, once and for all, what freedom of religion and religious freedom is.
The Meaning of Freedom of Religion
Freedom of religion means you have the freedom to belong to the religion of your choice. It means other people have the freedom to belong to the religion of their choice, or to choose no religion at all. It means government is neutral regarding religion, respects all religions, ensures that all people are free to belong or not belong to any religion. It means the people are free from Theocracy, and free from any theocratic imposition or religious coercion or proselytizing pressure. And it means people are free to be an agnostic or atheist if they so choose.
With a correct understanding of the intent of America’s Founders regarding religion, it is clear that freedom of religion and religious freedom means that a store owner cannot impose their religious beliefs on their employees or their customers. People in public office or in public positions cannot deny anyone their rights by imposing their religious beliefs into official government activities. And no one can force others to comply with theocratic dictates based on religious beliefs. Public laws must be established by the consent of the majority of legislators and the consent of the majority of the governed.
If you read Quotes From America’s Founders Regarding Religion, that will become clear. And here are some examples:
Thomas Jefferson, a champion of religious freedom, wrote: "Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between church and State."
Jefferson also wrote: "Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting 'Jesus Christ,' so that it would read 'A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion,;" the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and [Muslim], the [Hindu] and Infidel of every denomination." (Quotation from Jefferson’s Autobiography, in reference to his Virginia Act for Religious Freedom, which preceded and influenced the Constitution.)
Clearly Jefferson wanted freedom from Theocracy, and freedom from theocratic imposition from religious groups who think their religion entitles them to rule. And most other Founders agreed with Jefferson, especially James Madison.
"Strongly guarded as is the separation between Religion and Government in the Constitution of the United States, the danger of encroachment by [Religious] Bodies, may be illustrated by precedents already furnished in history." -- James Madison
"The civil Government, though bereft of everything like an associated hierarchy, possesses the requisite stability, and performs its functions with complete success, whilst the number, the industry, and the morality of the priesthood, and the devotion of the people, have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the Church from the State." -- James Madison
"The clergy, by getting themselves established by law and ingrafted into the machine of government, have been a very formidable engine against the civil and religious rights of man." -- Thomas Jefferson
That is why in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution the Framers used generic religious terms like "Creator," and "Nature's God," and "Divine Providence."
That is why on the Supreme Court building, the South Wall Frieze includes figures of lawgivers from the ancient world and includes Menes, Hammurabi, Moses, Solomon, Lycurgus, Solon, Draco, Confucius, and Augustus. The North Wall Frieze shows lawgivers from the Middle Ages on and includes representations of Justinian, Muhammad, Charlemagne, John of England, Louis IX of France, Hugo Grotius, Sir William Blackstone, John Marshall, and Napoleon. And Muhammad was included in the court's pantheon of 18 prominent lawgivers of history to recognize him, among many other lawgivers, as an important figure in the history of law.
Therefore, if we consider the actual words and actions of the Founding Fathers, it becomes very clear that the political agenda of “Christian” Dominionists on the "Fundamentalist Christian Religious Right" in America today is not at all compatible with the fundamental ideals of America’s Founders and Framers of the Constitution, or with the obligations of truly democratic government, nor is it compatible with the actual teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.
Furthermore, the theocratic "religious right" in America also violates an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) tax code regarding tax-exempt churches, because the code prevents churches and ministers and pastors from endorsing a candidate or engaging in partisan political advocacy in behalf of a candidate, especially if they claim Christians should rule. That would also violate Article 6 of the Constitution and the actual intent of the Founders. But, unfortunately, the IRS does not enforce the code, so the churches and ministers on the "religious right" violate the Constitution, the IRS code, and core teachings of Jesus of Nazareth with impunity.
All that is why Americans should learn what the Founders actually said and wrote, and also understand all the efforts throughout history to establish religious freedom.
Religious Freedom In History
While there are many examples of great leaders at various times through history who allowed their subject religious freedom, there is one that is particularly significant to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. That great leader was Cyrus the Great (or Cyrus II), the Emperor of the Persian Empire who freed the Jews from Babylonian captivity and enabled the Jews to return to Jerusalem, build their second temple, and live in peace.
In Isaiah 45:1-5 the biblical prophet Isaiah calls Cyrus an "anointed one," which means Mashiach (Messiah) in Hebrew, which means one who is called, anointed and chosen by God. But Cyrus II and his Magi counselors were Zoroastrians, followers of the Avatar Zoroaster. And Cyrus is still highly regarded today by many people in Iran (Persia) because he established religious freedom and human rights in his vast domain, which ultimately included what we now call Israel, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Even so, it is noteworthy that a Hebrew prophet and writer (Isaiah) would call a Zoroastrian Persian leader a messiah, and add that even though Cyrus "did not know God" he was still "anointed by God."
Another very interesting fact is that Cyrus began to go into India but he did not invade and conquer India. Why? Because he learned of a Hindu by the name of Siddartha Gautama, who had become known as the Buddha, and the Buddha taught the way of peace, harmony, and oneness of humanity and the universe. Cyrus admired that, and did not invade India because of it.
The Great Need for Religious Freedom In the World Today
Today the tendency toward Theocracy is growing. We saw it with the beginning of Jewish Zionist immigration to Palestine in 1917, and with the increase of that in 1948 and further increases ever since. In fact, in Israel it has gotten worse, and today the rights of women are being threatened. They are even forced to sit at the back of buses.
We saw a return of theocratic behavior in America in the 1980s when Christian Dominionists on the “religious right” were enabled by Ronald Reagan and began their quest to rule politically. We’ve seen it increase within various “Muslim” sects and groups in the Mid-East that also think their religion entitles them to rule. And we've even seen the rise of theocratic behavior in countries where Buddhism and Hinduism are predominant. So it seems to be an epidemic.
The time will come when the people of the world will be awakened to the truth regarding the real intent and purpose of religions, which has nothing to do with Theocracy. It has to do with the freedom, liberation and empowerment of the people, and the fostering of the spirit of family with the whole family of humanity.
Remember, as Thomas Jefferson so bravely said, religion should be a private matter, between each person and God, and we owe account to none other for our worship or religious beliefs. It is no one's business but our own, and it is an individual, private issue.
The idea that any religion entitles its members or adherents to rule is a gross misunderstanding of divine intent, and a gross misunderstanding and distortion of religious scriptures. For at the core of all religious texts is a Universal Divine Imperative, also known as the Golden Rule, which Hillel the Elder and Jesus of Nazareth said was a summation of the Torah.
We will save the world only by obeying and abiding by the Universal Divine Imperative that is common to all religions: Treat others as you would want to be treated if you were them.
All great spiritual teachers taught it, in one way or another. Thus Jews are supposed to be taught that we should not do to others what is hurtful to our self. Christians are supposed to be taught to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And Muslims are supposed to be taught that no one is a true believer in Allah until he desires for all others what he desires for himself.
Similarly, Buddhists are taught that we should treat others as we treat our self. Hindus are taught that we should not do unto others anything that, which if it were done to us, would cause us pain. Taoists are taught that we should regard our neighbor's gain as our own gain, and our neighbor's loss as our own loss. The Bahai Faith teaches that we should ascribe not to any soul that which we would not have ascribed to our self. Followers of Confucius are taught that we should never impose on others what we would not choose for our self. Sikhism teaches that you should be a stranger to no one, that no one should be a stranger to you, and you should be a friend to all. Jainism teaches that we should treat all creatures as we want to be treated. Native Americans believe that we are as much alive as we keep the earth alive. Unitarians affirm and promote respect for the independent web of all existence of which we are a part.
The founders of all other religions have taught the same thing in different ways, because the most essential, eternal truth is the same in any language, and at any time. The most important truth is eternal. And the founders of all true religions have also said that the search for the Divine and Holy should be not in the world, but within, and when found it brings forth love that is universal and knows no bounds.
These teachings and spiritual values are at the very core of all genuine religions, and they are all about unconditional love, peace, freedom, honesty, humility, tolerance, forgiveness, compassion, charity, and pacifism.
May God bless the world and forgive all the wicked people who don't understand that, and may their wickedness melt away as their heart opens and and they finally realize the error of their ways.