This week, U.S. Senator David Vitter has introduced a resolution, S. Res. 18, declaring that “the United States was founded on the principle of freedom of religion and not freedom from religion”.
Is it true? Is there no freedom from religion declared in the Constitution of the United States of America?
Article VI of the original body of the Constitution defines a founding freedom from religion. It states, “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” This part of the Constitution gives Americans the reassurance that they have freedom from religion when dealing with their government. We have freedom from the effort to impose religion as a condition for any public trust anywhere in the United States. This freedom from religion applies all the way from the Presidency down to local school boards.
The founders of the USA didn’t stop there, though. They extended this particular freedom from religion to all aspects of government. In the First Amendment to the Constitution, we are promised that there shall be “no law respecting an establishment of religion”. This part of the First Amendment gives Americans protection from religious laws. That’s certainly freedom from religion.
David Vitter seems to only want to recognize certain parts of the Constitution, the part of the First Amendment that says, for instance, that the government cannot take action “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion. The phrase “freedom of religion” never appears in the Constitution, but it’s this phrase, in combination with the phrase banning laws establishing religion, that’s generally supposed to create freedom of religion in the United States.
What Senator Vitter overlooks, in his claim that there is “freedom of religion and not freedom from religion” in the United States, is that freedom of religion does not exist when participation in religion is a legal requirement. If individual Americans have religious freedom, that has to include the freedom not to be involved in religion at all.
Freedom of the press includes the freedom for journalists to choose not to cover stories, if they so choose. The freedom of speech includes the freedom to not speak. The right to peaceably assemble includes the right to remain apart from assemblies. The right to petition the government for redress of grievances includes the right not to join any petitioning effort at all. In the same way, the freedom of religion includes the freedom to not participate in any religion at all. Free exercise isn’t free if it doesn’t allow people to abstain from exercise.
When David Vitter states that Americans don’t have “freedom from religion”, it’s because he’s working to give more power to groups seeking to force their particular forms of religious worship on everyone else – prayer, for instance. Senator Vitter’s resolution seeks to lend credence to the idea that school boards, elected bodies of local government, should be transformed into religious organizations, engaging in prayerful worship of gods as a part of their school governance.
Why would Senator Vitter want to make religious worship a part of local government practice? As a Republican in Louisiana, Vitter’s political base is Christian, but the percentage of Christians in Louisiana in general is dwindling. Republicans are retaining Christian belief more than Democrats and independent voters. Vitter knows where his political loyalties must lie – with Christianity. So, although there are many people who have no religious identity in every community in Louisiana, and across the USA, Vitter wants to take away the neutral ground of government as a sphere neither for nor against religion, and hand it to Christian groups. It’s a simple grab for political power.