Separate But Equal? Why “Freedom of Worship” Makes Religious People Sit at Back of the (Church) Bus

Separate But Equal? Why “Freedom of Worship” Makes Religious People Sit at Back of the (Church) Bus April 16, 2015


In light of my earlier post advancing a secular, empirical argument for the value of public prayer, I’ve been engaged in an interesting discussion with a couple of atheist bloggers at Patheos on what religious freedom really entails (Note: the discussion occurred on a private forum and I don’t have permission to share their thoughts so I will refrain from naming  or quoting them or the other participants).   I realize that politics is outside the usual purview of this blog, but I thought this was important enough an issue to post here.

In the course of our conversation my atheist colleagues pointed out that several theist bloggers, who had also joined the discussion, were also opposed to so-called, “civic deist” prayer (i.e., public prayer that does not require adherence to any particular god, religion, or dogma).  I observed that the two theist bloggers in question, who both felt that people should be allowed to pray in church or “in their heart” but not at a school board meeting, of congress,  for instance,  demonstrated the common and dangerous misunderstanding that freedom of religion is limited to freedom of worship.   (It’s understandable.  The President shares this confusion.  Hence the HHS Mandate)

Freedom of Worship V. Freedom of Religion:  What’s the Difference?

A society that limits freedom of religion to mere freedom of worship is a society in which religious persons are considered separate but equal. It is a society that says, “You can only pray in these (communion) lines and at this (baptismal) water fountain.”  Freedom of worship requires religious people to check expressions of their faith at their church door (or the door of their hearts).

Freedom of religion, by contrast, is broader. It is akin to freedom of speech. If I have freedom of speech, I may speak my mind wherever I am and whomever I am with. I may even give offense as long as I don’t directly endanger others. In the same way, true freedom of religion allows me to live, speak, and act upon my religious beliefs in whatever context I find myself–even if doing so gives offense to others–as long as doing so doesn’t represent a direct endangerment to others. 

Freedom of Worship Tells Religious People to Sit At the Back of the (Church) Bus

If I am only free to speak my thoughts “in my heart” or in this section of the (church) bus, I do not have true freedom of speech. Yes, many religious people been socialized by our present culture to believe that they must settle for freedom of worship instead of a robust freedom of religion,  but just because some African Americans were content to sit in the back of the bus prior to Rosa Parks’ brave protest doesn’t mean segregation was right or just.

A Call for True Pluralism

Freedom of religion is really about the free expression of belief in the public square. A truly pluralistic, democratic society doesn’t require that we listen to and/or accept what one another has to say, but it at least prevents us from trying to silence each other. 

A truly religiously pluralistic society allows me to pray publicly and you to scowl disapprovingly at me while I do it or, vice versa,  allows you to hold a meeting where you make fun of prayer while I scowl disapprovingly at you  for doing it,  and then encourages us to all go out for drinks after. People who want to limit freedom of religion to freedom of worship don’t want true pluralism.  Rather, they want religious segregation where religious people may be free…as long as they stay in their parish ghettos.

If that’s what passes for the secular/atheist vision of tolerance. You’ll understand if I take a pass.

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