The Secular Limits of Religious Freedom

Andrew Seidel in the Salt Lake Tribune laid out out some principles that are worth noting about religious freedoms. Especially how religious freedoms are not absolute and more importantly how actions based on sincere belief are not unlimited. Too many times I personally have run into this barrier during arguments and Mr. Seidels explanation helped me realize just where the gaping hole in that wall of logic was located.

Firstly, when looked at as a whole, Americans have six primary rights as citizens – a secular government, the right of petition against that government, the free exercise of religion, free speech, free press, and freedom of assembly. These rights however are actually constructed to protect our one absolute freedom, the freedom of thought.

In this world of internet debate, what usually isn’t addressed about constitutional rights are how they can be and should be limited. Most of my experience has been with those using the word “right” as the ultimate wild card to allow any behavior they feel entitled. If you have ever debated the clause “well regulated” these days you probably know what I mean.

He writes:

“It might seem odd for a constitutional attorney to point out that, other than the freedom of thought, all our rights can and should be curtailed in certain circumstances. But it’s true. Even the free exercise of religion can be limited. Look closely at the language and the amendment makes this clear. The free exercise clause prevents the government from “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion; it does not prevent the government from regulating conduct that might be religiously motivated. Free exercise can be burdened, encumbered, hampered, impeded, strained and hindered — it cannot be prohibited.”

In my experience it is the word “exercise” that is too often focused upon when it is the word “prohibited” that is the real crux of the matter. The point becomes that while we have the absolute right to freedom of thought we do not have an absolute right to action based on those thoughts. It is religion that has always sought to conform one’s thought to the subjective interpretation of authority to control human impulse. However, it is secularism that allows reason to interpret that control by whatever means necessary but it is the control that decides our fate not unquestionable doctrine of belief.

An example of why this control must be secular would be murder disguised sincerely held belief. Anyone can claim to hear a voice in their head that they can claim as moral authority telling them they must sacrifice their only child, or their neighbor down the street. This not only applies to lethal behaviors but can also be applied to discrimination of those who refuse to accept another’s belief that offends this disembodied voice. We have seen this far too often from Crusades to Inquisitions and slavery to Jim Crow laws.

Time and again throughout history, bigotry has used religion as justification to practice violating the inherent rights of others while claiming religious beliefs are being violated. We face such times again with the increasing amount of legislation that is being passed in the name of religious freedom. These laws push the boundaries of what is constitutionally “least restrictive” which coincidentally enough prompted Seidel to frame the meaning of these rights.

Seidel contextualizes a quote from Thomas Jefferson like this:

“If religion mandates picking pockets, breaking legs, or discriminating against other citizens, it comes under the purview of our secular law. No belief, no matter how fervent, and no law, no matter how slyly named, should change that. There is no religious right to infringe the rights of others.”

Those like certain cake bakers can hold whatever beliefs they want but cannot and should not be allowed to discriminate or make second class citizens of those who disagree with those beliefs. The US Constitution these believers cherish so much now still holds the tools to prevent the horror unbounded religious authority can cause. But now through blind ignorance of power and fear, these believers race to an idealized past that was proven could never be held without lash and shackle.

It’s up to secularism to maintain an equitable society where freedom of thought is ever maintained as the absolute. That is how the dream of liberty can endure.

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