The Freedom to Believe Does Not Include the Freedom to Impose

Fourth of July waving flag

Americans have many good reasons to review our Constitution and reflect on what it means. The 4th of July seems like as good an occasion as any other for this. We might consider the implications of the First Amendment for various controversies related to free speech. And of course, we could take a look at the Establishment Clause and ask ourselves how successful we've been in maintaining Jefferson's wall. I'd argue that we should strive to do much better.

America confers great benefits on its residents, and one of those benefits is the freedom to believe and exercise that belief however one chooses. But with that benefit comes the responsibility to not interfere in the rights of others. That is the principle on display in the First Amendment’s religion clauses. You are free to practice how you wish – and so are others – but you cannot use the power of government to compel others to believe according to your wishes.

- Rhys Long, Americans United for Separation of Church and State

Our right to believe what we want with respect to religion has long been a popular topic, despite never being in any real jeopardy. When we hear people howl about this right, we need to focus on the meaning behind their words. What are they after? They aren't asking for the right to believe; they are demanding the right to impose what they believe on others. Many would love nothing more than to leverage state power to achieve this.

Their right to believe what they want does not entitle them to restrict this right for the rest of us. And the content of their religious beliefs isn't supposed to entitle them to restrict other rights for those who don't share their religious beliefs. This is the difference between choosing not to abort a pregnancy and making it impossible for someone else to make a different choice.

Religious believers must remain free to cling to whatever religious beliefs they'd like. What they aren't supposed to be permitted to do is convert their beliefs into legislation that applies to the rest of us. We need to work harder on this front if we want to preserve one of our most important American values.

Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay