By James A. Haught
Freedom of religion means that nobody — neither the government nor the surrounding culture — can tell you what to believe. All people are free to reach their own conclusions about faith.
Let’s ponder a few of the many battles that won this precious right.
In past centuries, religious wars, persecutions and cruelties were common. Physician-scholar Michael Servetus, who discovered the pulmonary circulation of blood, was burned at the stake in Calvinist Geneva in 1553 for doubting the Trinity. His own books were used for his pyre. Philosopher-scientist Giordano Bruno was burned in Rome in 1600 for teaching that the universe is infinite, with many stars that might be accompanied by planets.
The Enlightenment gradually changed Western civilization, instilling a new sense that faith is personal, not to be dictated by authorities. It slowly bred the separation of church and state, forbidding the use of government force to impose beliefs.
But many struggles were required to achieve freedom of religion. Here’s one example.
When Quakers first began expressing their emotional beliefs in the 1600s, England’s ruling Puritans under Oliver Cromwell denounced and persecuted them. Many fled to the New World — unfortunately to Puritan Massachusetts, where they were persecuted anew. In 1658, the Massachusetts Legislature decreed that Quakers must be banned, on pain of death. Quakers arriving by ship were seized and jailed, and their books burned. But Quakers stubbornly defied expulsion, returning repeatedly to hold worship services in homes. The persecution intensified.
Quaker resistance finally forced a showdown. In 1659, three unrepentant Quakers were tried on capital charges and sentenced to death. The two men were hanged in the Boston Commons but the woman was reprieved and banished. However, she stubbornly returned to defy the Puritan law, and was hanged in 1660. The following year, a fourth Quaker was also hanged.
By this time, some Massachusetts Puritans were becoming revolted by the cruelty of their colony and tried to soften Quaker punishments. In 1661, King Charles II ordered the colony to halt executions. He sent a royal governor who allowed some believers to hold unorthodox beliefs. It was a breakthrough for freedom of religion.
Peaceful acceptance of all sorts of religious views is in fact a central belief of freethinkers, who contend that government shouldn’t inflict punishments to enforce any doctrine. Separation of church and state was locked into the First Amendment of America’s Bill of Rights.
Virginia’s historic Statute for Religious Freedom, written by Thomas Jefferson in 1777 and finally passed in 1786, declares “that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion.”
Similar guarantees of church-state separation were written into France’s Rights of Man and the Citizen, and into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations.
By coincidence, the first Boston Quakers were hanged on Oct. 27 — the same calendar date that skeptic Michael Servetus was burned in Geneva. So that date eventually was adopted for International Religious Freedom Day, one of many observances little-known to the public. Meanwhile, America has a different Religious Freedom Day, Jan. 16, marking the date that Jefferson’s statute was signed into law.
My state of West Virginia was involved in another religious freedom breakthrough.
During the patriotic fervor of World War II, some Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Mountain State enraged neighbors because they refused to salute the flag and wouldn’t let their children do so in public schools. They said their religion required them to swear allegiance only to God. Witness children in Charleston were expelled from school for their “unpatriotic” behavior. But the American Civil Liberties Union and a fiery old Charleston lawyer named Horace Meldahl fought their case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the children in a famed 1943 decision (West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette). The court said personal beliefs are “beyond the reach of majorities and officials.” Justice Robert H. Jackson wrote eloquently:
If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act.
Today, freedom to believe as one wishes is locked securely in the heart of democracy.
FFRF Member James A. Haught, syndicated by PeaceVoice, was the longtime editor at the Charleston Gazette and has been the editor emeritus since 2015. He has won two dozen national newswriting awards and is author of 12 books and 150 magazine essays. He also is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine and was writer-in-residence for the United Coalition of Reason.
This column is adapted from a piece originally published in the Charleston Gazette-Mail on Aug. 7, 2016, distributed nationally by two syndicates and reprinted in Haught’s 11th book, Hurrah for Liberals.