Religious Freedom and the Right to Annoy Others

Religious Freedom

The United States was founded, in part, on the idea that citizens should be free to practice their religions without government interference. We hear a lot about religious freedom these days, but it is difficult to imagine that the founders were talking about anything other than one's freedom to practice one's religion in the privacy of one's own home or place of worship. They probably weren't thinking about religious freedom as involving the right to bully gay children, pass so-called "blue laws," or restrict the ability of women to make their own healthcare decisions.

The question I'd like to explore in this post concerns the limits of religious freedom. In particular, I'm interested in whether religious freedom gives the religious practitioner the right to annoy others.

Screams in the Night

Let's imagine that you and I live next door to each other in a typical American subdivision, meaning that there is relatively little separation between my yard and the wall of your bedroom. I belong to a very small religious sect with many beliefs that sound good (e.g., the importance of caring for the poor and striving for equality) and one extremely strange ritual that makes your life very difficult. You see, my religion teaches that all members of the faith are to stand in the side yard of their property and scream at the top of their lungs four times each night at precisely 11:00pm, 1:30am, 3:00am, and 4:15am. As a devout practitioner of my faith, I obey this teaching. Each and every night, I stand in my side yard (which places me approximately 20 feet from your bedroom wall) and scream at the prescribed intervals. We're not talking about quiet little yelps here, but truly blood-curdling screams, the likes of which you've only heard in horror movies.

The first time you encounter my odd ritual, you call the police because you think someone is being murdered. They investigate but tell you there isn't anything they can do about it because I am merely exercising my religious freedom (and my lungs). The screaming continues night after night. You pay me a visit and explain that I'm disrupting your sleep, scaring your family, etc. My response is to point out the central role of what I am doing in my religion. I tell you that I am obligated by my religion to do this. I remind you that our Constitution protects my freedom to practice my religion and insist that this is what I am doing. I tell you that I am sorry if my ritual annoys you but make it clear that I do not intend to stop.

Since I know what I am describing sounds unrealistic because there are likely laws against "disturbing the peace" which I am clearly violating, let's add one component to this and say that many of the local police in our community happen to share my religious beliefs and have little interest in enforcing laws they perceive as overly restrictive. If you find such a possibility far-fetched, you probably haven't spend much time in the American South.

When Religious Practices Annoy

In this hypothetical situation, what exactly is the problem? You are not really being harmed by what I am doing, but my behavior is clearly annoying. I am being a nuisance. Moreover, your annoyance is not about your oversensitivity or any particular problem you have with my beliefs; virtually anyone in your place is going to be annoyed with what I am doing. The only exception would be other practitioners of my religion because they'll be out in their own yards screaming at the same time I am.

Now here's the question: is what I have described here really about religious freedom at all? Does religious freedom mean that I am free to practice my religion as I see fit in the privacy of my own home or at my church, or does it mean that I also have the freedom to annoy? Does my religious freedom give me the right to interfere with your life by disrupting your sleep like this?

Now ask yourself how door-to-door proselytizing relates to these questions? I have heard from many Christians, including some who have commented right here on this blog, that they are extremely annoyed when persons from different religions knock on their door to proselytize (e.g., Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses). In fact, more than a few Southern Baptists have told me that they hate it when Mormons and Jehovah's witnesses come to their door even though they themselves engage in door-to-door proselytizing! So, most people are annoyed by door-to-door proselytizing, including many who do it themselves.

Can door-to-door proselytizing really be viewed as an exercise of religious freedom? Again, does your religious freedom include the freedom to annoy me and most others?

It is not my intent to equate someone screaming repeatedly in the middle of the night with your repeated attempts to share your "good news" with me by interrupting whatever I'm doing with your knocks on my door (although fireworks would seem to be similar). These are not the same thing, although I think we can agree that they are both annoying. The question is whether religious freedom entitles one to annoy others, and in the case of door-to-door proselytizing, whether it entitles the religious practitioner to come on my property uninvited, disrupt my activities, and spew nonsense on my porch.

An early version of this post first appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2012. It was revised in 2020.