Revere writes about a religion panel on CNN that berated an atheist family that got ostracized when it complained about officially-sanctioned prayer in public schools, and concluded that freedom of religion doesn’t exist. The money quotes from the panel are,
Hunter: I think they need to shut up about crying wolf all the time and saying that they’re being imposed upon. I personally think that they should never have taken prayer out of schools. I would rather there be some morality in schools. But they did that because an atheist went to court and said their child — don’t pray.
Schlussel: Listen, we are a Christian nation. I’m not a Christian. I’m Jewish, but I recognize we’re a Christian country and freedom of religion doesn’t mean freedom from religion.
Freedom of religion means that one has the right to practice one’s religion, within reasonable legal parameters. Choosing to eat kosher food falls under freedom of religion; stoning unchaste women doesn’t. That right appears in every liberal democratic constitution I know of, along with freedom of speech.
Freedom from religion means that one has the right not to have another religion imposed on him. This is somewhat fuzzier, since a lot of religious restrictions have ostensibly secular purposes. But even then, it’s usually possible to tell intuitively what violates freedom from religion and what doesn’t. Requiring all women to wear hijabs does, as does pressuring children to pray in public schools. Having no non-kosher restaurants in the neighborhood doesn’t.
That freedom is just as legally enshrined as freedom of religion. Sometimes, it’s enumerated explicitly in a constitution. At other times it’s not, but is inferred from other freedoms: freedom of speech, privacy, freedom of religion, and so on. In the US there is no explicit guarantee of freedom from religion, but there is a guarantee of the closest principle, separation of church and state. That ensures the state may not impose religious restrictions that have no clear secular purpose.
We can bicker about what “secular purpose” means, but usually the best appeal is to the justifications people give for a restriction. Restrictions on abortion or stem cell research are often motivated by religion, but justified by appealing to a secular principle. The same applies to some obscenity laws, especially those about the media. In contrast, bans on homosexuality and sodomy laws are almost exclusively justified by talking about God, which makes them impositions of religious values on the general population.
In principle, it’s possible to have freedom of religion without freedom from religion. In practice, it never happens. When there’s a sufficiently strong state religion, it always uses its power against other religions. Saudi Arabia doesn’t content itself with legislating the Shari’a; it also forbids Jews and Christians to establish houses of worship. In the West, Christian fundamentalists are at the forefront of the movement to turn Muslims into second class citizens.
Illiberal people tend to have an annoying tendency to see things in terms of power rather than of liberty. It makes them sound realist, but in fact they aren’t. Instead of seeing the world as it is, they deduce that what happens in realpolitik is a good moral compass. People seek unlimited power; therefore, our group should seek unlimited power.
Talking about one’s freedom to have a public school impose one’s prayer on everyone is dishonest. It’s not a question of freedom but of power, since the essence of that power is to deny freedom to others. Christian parents who use their power to enforce Christianity on atheist children are looking for freedom to the same extent as white families that prohibit blacks from living next door.