Religious Freedom in a Pluralistic Society

Religious freedom is one of our most treasured liberties, a fundamental and defining feature of our national character. Given our robust, longstanding commitment to the freedom of religion and belief, it is no surprise that the United States is among the most religious, and religiously diverse, nations in the world. Indeed, religious liberty is alive and well in this country precisely because our government cannot tell us whether, when, where, or how to worship.

As enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, religious freedom includes two complementary protections: the right to religious belief and expression, and a guarantee that the government neither prefers religion over non-religion nor favors particular faiths over others. These dual protections work hand-in-hand, allowing religious liberty to thrive and safeguarding both religion and government from the undue influences of the other.

Applying these religious liberty principles in a society where there are countless different religious beliefs and preferences, and harmonizing them with other core rights in our pluralistic society – rights of free speech, equality, privacy, etc. – is not always easy. But at a minimum, religious freedom means the following:

We have the right to a government that neither promotes nor disparages religion generally, nor any faith, in particular. We have the absolute right to believe whatever we want about God, faith, and religion. We have the right to act on our religious beliefs, unless those actions harm others.

In practice, this means that the government should not promote prayer or other religious exercise and messages, coerce religious worship and belief, or give special preference or benefits to any particular faith or to religion generally. At the same time, religious liberty requires that the government permit a wide range of religious exercise and expression for people of all faiths, in public or in private. Government officials may not impede such religious exercise unless it would threaten the rights, welfare, and well-being of others or violate the core constitutional ban on governmental promotion of religion.

 

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