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Believers should remember 'soul liberty,' respect rights of non-believers
Inside the First Amendment

By Charles C. Haynes
First Amendment Center senior scholar

Have the tragic events of Sept. 11 made Americans more tolerant of religious expression in public life but less tolerant of the non-religious?

Judging from the mail I’m getting, the answer may be “yes.” Americans with no religious preference (designated by pollsters as the “religious nones”) feel increasingly isolated and defensive about the joining of “God and country” in ceremonies from Yankee Stadium to the local school. And they’re more and more angry about what they see as government attempts to promote religion throughout the culture.

These Americans — many of whom identify themselves as atheists or “freethinkers” — are speaking out in growing numbers. A parent in New York complains that “God Bless America” is the only patriotic song repeatedly sung at her son’s school in response to Sept. 11 (and the school instructs the kids to recite the little-known preamble calling people to “raise our voices in solemn prayer”). A citizen in Ohio is upset because his town bans all “unattended private displays,” but puts up a holiday display with religious symbols. A woman in Georgia claims that judges in her town appoint jurors to lead the court in prayer. And the list goes on.

What I find particularly unsettling about these stories are the reports of harassment that accompany them. “My son and I have become targets of countless acts of hatred and abuse,” writes one mother. “My family received many harassing and threatening phone calls,” writes another man.

What’s going on here? It’s one thing to disagree about how high the wall should be between church and state. But it’s another to attack people who dare to challenge the actions of government officials.

The ugly truth is that atheists are easy targets in our society. In a nation where religious commitment (or the appearance of religious commitment) seems to be an informal requirement for public office, it’s understandable that many atheists feel under siege.

Of course, atheists can sometimes be their own worst enemy. The sometimes-abrasive Madalyn Murray O'Hair — portrayed for decades in the media as the sole voice of atheism — was probably not the best spokesperson for her cause. And these days some “freedom from religion” folks appear ready to file a lawsuit every time religion pops up in the public square.

It would help matters if people on all sides could keep two civic principles in mind. First and foremost, the First Amendment religion clauses aren’t just for the religious. The First Amendment protects the religious liberty of everyone — people of all faiths and people who profess no religious faith.

And second, government coercion in matters of faith — whether in the classroom or in the courtroom — violates liberty of conscience, harms authentic religion and divides our communities. The public square of America should be a place where all of us — religious and non-religious — are free to persuade one another to our view. But it should not be a place where any of us — religious or non-religious — uses the engine of government to impose our view.

Before I get letters (and I will) informing me that we are a “Christian nation” where Christian faith should be privileged (and the First Amendment doesn’t really separate church from state), let me remind readers of the Christian roots of the American arrangement in religious liberty for all people.

It was that courageous Christian minister, Roger Williams, who first insisted that God created every person with “soul liberty” — the freedom to choose for or against God. And therefore government must never get involved in matters of faith. William's argued that state-imposed religion doesn’t advance true faith; it only leads to either hypocritical religious people or bloodshed.

When Williams founded Rhode Island nearly four centuries ago, he insisted on freedom of conscience for everyone — including, for the first time in history, atheists. To do less, Williams believed, would be profoundly unchristian.

Full liberty of conscience wasn’t popular then (the clergy of New Amsterdam called Rhode Island the “sewer of New England”), and it’s not popular with many Americans today. But Williams prevailed. His religious commitment to soul liberty eventually became our civic commitment to religious liberty as embodied in the principles of the First Amendment.

Williams was right. Religious liberty — freedom of conscience — is a precious fundamental and inalienable right for everyone. In the words of the Williamsburg Charter: “A society is only as just and free as it is respectful of this right for its smallest minorities and least popular communities.”

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