Religious Liberty and Nonreligion
Government in our democracy, state, and national, must be neutral in
matters of religious theory, doctrine, and practice. It may not be hostile to
any religion or to the advocacy of no-religion; and it may not aid, foster, or
promote one religion or religious theory against another or even against the
militant opposite. The First Amendment mandates governmental neutrality
between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion.
- Justice Abe Fortas for the majority in Epperson v. Arkansas (1968), at 103, 104
The right of a man to worship God or even refuse to worship God, and to
entertain such religious views as appeal to his individual conscience, without
dictation or interference by any person or power, civil or ecclesiastical, is as
fundamental in a free government like ours as is the right to life, liberty and
the pursuit of happiness.
- Iowa Supreme Court in Knowlton v. Baumhover (1918), 182 Iowa 691, 166NW 202, 5
The "establishment of religion" clause of the First Amendment means at
least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church.
Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one
religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to
remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or
disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or
professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or
- Justice Hugo L. Black for the majority in Everson v. Board of Education (1947), 330 US
The day that this country ceases to be free for irreligion it will cease to be
free for religion… We start down a rough road when we begin to mix
compulsory public education with compulsory godliness.
- Justice Robert H. Jackson, dissent in Zorach v. Clauson (1952), at 325
Bringing their convictions to bear, the framers of our Constitution were
determined that every individual must be free to practice or not to practice
religious beliefs in accordance with the dictates of his conscience, and that
government must stay out of religious affairs entirely.
- Judge L. Clure Morton for the U.S. District Court in Beck v. McElrath (1982), 584 F.
In the United States we have come to believe that government is not the
exclusive property of one faith, that government must be the protector of
persons of every faith and of none.
- John M. Swomley, Jr., in The Churchman, April, 1985.
Nonbelievers are protected by the religion clauses of the Constitution not
because secular humanism is a religion, which it is not, but because when
the government acts on the basis of religion it discriminates against those
who do not "believe" in the governmentally-favored manner.
- Norman Dorsen, "Civil Liberties," from Encyclopedia of the American Constitution (1986),
edited by L.W. Levy, K. L. Karst, and D. J. Mahoney
(It) would seem that religious liberty extends to atheists as well as to theists,
to those who find their religion in ethics and morality, rather than in a
- William O. Douglas in The Right of the People, (Doubleday, 1958), pp. 92
From Definitions by Individuals and Organizations
Freedom of religion, as the Founding Fathers saw it, was not just the right to
associate oneself with a certain denomination but the right to disassociate
without penalty. Belief or nonbelief was a matter of individual choice—a right
underwritten in the basic charter of the nation’s liberties.
- Norman Cousins, Saturday Review, December, 1980
Freedom of religion also implies the right not to have or profess a religion.
This is sometimes overlooked. It is a sad commentary on religion that
religionists, probably quite well-meaning at times, have throughout history
tried to force fellow human beings into a required religious mold. Apart from
the very wrong theological assumption involved, this is a flagrant violation of
the dignity of the human person. Coerced religion is demeaning and of little
- Bert Beach, Seventh-day Adventist religious liberty executive in Bright Candle of
Courage, (Pacific Press Publishing, 1989), p. 15
Religious freedom means (among other things) the right of every individual
to believe or not believe, to profess or not profess, any religious proposition
or creed on the basis of his or her own experience, education, study, or
reasoning, and the concomitant right to change one’s beliefs. It means the
right to worship or not to worship, to be or not be a member of a religious
group, to change or discontinue a religious affiliation.
- Edd Doerr, Americans for Religious Liberty executive in Address at Touro Synagogue,
Newport, RI, August 19, 1990
We recognize that religious liberty includes the freedom of an individual to
be an agnostic, a non-theist, an atheist, or even an anti-theist. Otherwise, the
civil community would be invested with authority to establish orthodoxy in
matters of belief. We are confident that such a state of affairs would
constitute a threat to all religious interests. … Theologically speaking,
religious freedom … include(s) freedom to doubt and deny God.
- Excerpt from the General Assembly Resolution of the United Methodist Church, 1980
Teaching About Religion
in support of civic pluralism