One of Thomas Jefferson’s most famous statements about religious freedom is this succinct observation: “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
In a nutshell, what your neighbor believes about God simply does not affect you. But if he decides to put that belief into action, if he tries to pick your pocket or break your leg in the name of his God, that’s another story. Unfortunately, these days we’re seeing a lot of (metaphorical) pocket picking and leg breaking taking place in the name of “religious freedom.”
Today is a good time to reflect on this issue because it’s Constitution Day when we recognize the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. Although the Bill of Rights and its First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom were not part of the original Constitution – they were ratified four years later – discussions leading up to the adoption of the Constitution signaled that the nation was going to try something new: secular government backed by a guarantee of religious freedom for all (and, yes, that includes the right not to believe).
The experiment was a smashing success. As the Founders predicted, severing the tie between religion and government led to a great flowering of religious diversity. Unfortunately, our grand experiment stands in jeopardy today as some people continue efforts to redefine religious freedom, converting it from a device to protect individual rights into an instrument to oppress others.
Many current legal battles focus on the marketplace, where owners of businesses are seeking the right to deny services to entire classes of people who offend their religious sensibilities. Across the country, bakers, photographers, florists, wedding planners, owners of B&Bs and others are insisting that they can slam the door in the face of LGBTQ people, atheists, Muslims, single parents and anyone else who fails to measure up to how they interpret their religion. Sadly, some courts are accepting these claims.
America’s civil rights laws were intended to ensure no one is treated as second class because of someone else’s prejudice – and the fact that a particular prejudice may be anchored in religion should be no safe harbor. Discrimination, whether based on secular or religious rationales, is wrong and causes other people grave harm. It picks pockets, and it breaks legs.
On this Constitution Day, recommit yourself to a vision of authentic religious freedom. Recognize that you (and your neighbor) have the right to believe what you want but that actions that flow from those beliefs may be curtailed if they take away the rights of others, cause them harm or threaten the safety of larger society.
One way to do that is by supporting the Do No Harm Act, federal legislation that will preserve protections for religious freedom while also clarifying that it may not be used to harm others. Learn more here.