What does freedom of religion mean?

I’m a pretty precise kinda guy.  I like things to have clearly defined lines, particularly when it comes to the goverment.  The reason I bring this up is because I find myself more and more confused as time goes on with what exactly the 1st Amendment means and should mean.  In my latest moment of confusion I read this blog post about a lawsuit against the city of San Francisco for their resolution condemning the morals of the Catholic Church.

Obviously I think the city of San Francisco is run by anti-Catholic bigots who are the biggest hypocrits ever for their constant message of “just let people live their lives the way they want… unless you want to live a Christian life.”  But just because I think it was a horrible resolution doesn’t mean I think it is worthy of a lawsuit based on 1st Amendment grounds.

Just for clarity, The 1st Amendment states:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

It’s a pretty broad statement that says more than just “freedom of religion”.  But in regards to religion is says 3 things:

  1. It is illegal for the government to set up its own religion (called ‘the establishment clause’)
  2. It is illegal for the government to prevent people from practicing their own religion (called ‘the free exercise clause’)
  3. It is illegal for the government to prevent people from preaching their religion to others (called… um… the free speach clause?)

Generally the thing that I find difficult to determine is what a “religion” is from a legal standpoint.  Lots of people have religious beliefs that are illegal.  I’m pretty sure it is still illegal for canabals to eat human flesh, even human flesh of someone who consented to be eaten after their natural death.  As such, for obvious reasons, there is both a history and a good reason to bound the free exercise clause to mean “within reason”.  But who decides what “within reason” means?  It’s not just about infringing on the rights of others, as my canabal example shows.  And who is to decide what “within reason” means?  It can’t be the general population/majority because this clause is a right that is there to protect the minority.

So it’s all very confusing to me from a purely theoretical standpoint.  What I do know is that my Catholic faith should be protected because it historically and currently falls “within reason” and I’m fairly sensitive to the way our country is going with regards to infringing on Catholics right to practice our religion.  There are currently laws on the books in regards to abortion and birth control that place minor limit the rights of Catholics to practice their religion by compelling them to either act in a way their religion finds objectionable or refer others (which is in itself an afront to Catholics) to someone who will act in an objectionable way.  I fully believe that this trend will continue and there will be more significant legal abuses of the 1st Amendment against Catholics that will have to be fought all the way up to the Supreme Court.  As such, despite my theoretical confusion, I find in practice the 1st Amendment essential for Catholics in this country, despite being vague and confusing.

But this case against the city of San Francisco has nothing to do with my above confusion.  The city council is in no way preventing people from exercising their faith nor from having free speach.  So really, at least based on numbers two and three in my list, there is no case against SF.

Which brings me to my new confusion.  What does the establishment clause really mean?  And I guess in some way this comes back to the original confusion of, what exactly defines a religion?  We know that athiesm is indeed a religion from the various lawsuits athiests have brought forward protecting their right to practice their religion, so “having a God” is not a requirement for a religion.  So is all that is required a set of moral beliefs?

If that is the case, any time the goverment speaks to what is right and what is wrong (separate from what is legal and illegal), they’ve broken the establishment clause.  They have created a moral framework and if that’s all that is required to call your beliefs a religion, the government does it ALL THE TIME.  It does this on both sides.  We’ve got the various sex education measures that are constantly pushing a certain morality.  Yet on the other side, the Catholic Church in the US, which is very aware of the issues surrounding the 1st Amendment and is very protective of its freedom is constantly calling on the government to make moral proclamations.

So it’s all very confusing to me.

One take-away I have from this case is that I think it would be wise for the government to take a step back from the highly public service announcement model it has evolved into, including how it teaches things in public schools.  While there are minimums that can reasonably be taught without getting into murky areas, we long ago crossed over that line.  Somewhere the line between reasonable minimums like “don’t break the law” or getting the facts out like “AIDS can kill you” and making moral pronouncements like “teen pregnancy is bad” (purposely chosen for it’s lack of controversy) got blurred and then forgotten.  Perhaps it is time to re-draw that line.

As to whether there is actually a case against SF, I’m still not sure.  My gut says yes because not only were they making a moral statement, one that reeks of a anti-Christian religions mindset, but also because their statement was directed at a specific religion as opposed to a general “this is good” statement.  At the same time, I’m not so sure how to specifically corolate that to the specifics of what the 1st Amendment requires without breaking tons of reasonable precident.

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