Do Americans have freedom FROM religion? Actually, yes (two SCOTUS cases)

Americans indeed have a right to not be forced to practice a religion, any religion. We have rights to not be subjected to a state endorsement of one religion over another, or over irreligion. These are inalienable rights; however, some have resisted the implementation of these rights with a rather strange assertion: “It’s freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.” Well, yes, that’s how it’s traditionally worded, but I don’t think they understand what freedom of religion actually is.

Yesterday I examined how — in my opinion — religious exemptions to certain rules (in my example, beards) have the unfortunate effect of harming the rest of us. Today I’ll pore over two court cases that explicitly lay out how Americans indeed have freedom from religion. Yesterday’s post highlighted rather inconsequential issues, so I figured I should examine issues of literal life and death: War.

In these cases SCOTUS sidestepped defining religion, and instead essentially stated that “It’s up to you — the individual — to define what a religion is.” Their finding: Secular ethics and religious ethics occupy the same places in our hearts.

Case #1: United States v. Seeger, 380 US 163, 85 S. Ct. 850 (1965)

The issue before the Court in Seeger was whether or not people who do not follow orthodox religions can be exempted from forced military service. The Court found that following unorthodox religions meets the criteria for religious exemption from military service. Specifically,

A sincere and meaningful belief which occupies in the life of its possessor a place parallel to that filled by the God of those admittedly qualifying for the exemption comes within the statutory definition. This construction avoids imputing to Congress an intent to classify different religious beliefs, exempting some and excluding others, and is in accord with the well-established congressional policy of equal treatment for those whose opposition to service is grounded in their religious tenets.

This quote is hugely important. The Court not only exempted unorthodox religious adherents from military service; it also equated strongly held ethical stances with religious beliefs. In this sense, the Court also exempted atheists from service, so long as said atheists express “A sincere and meaningful belief [against war] which occupies in the life of its possessor a place parallel to that filled by the God.” But some might contest my assertion, so I’ll move on to the next case.

Case #2: Welsh v. US, 398 US 333 (1970)

The issue before the Court in Welsh was whether or not a person can be exempted from military service if their objections to service do not stem from any religious background. The Court found that, yes, one doesn’t need to be religious to have ethical beliefs that are identical to religious ethics. Specifically (quoting Seeger),

If an individual deeply and sincerely holds beliefs that are purely ethical or moral in source and content but that nevertheless impose upon him a duty of conscience to refrain from participating in any war at any time, those beliefs certainly occupy in the life of that individual “a place parallel to that filled by . . . God” in traditionally religious persons. Because his beliefs function as a religion in his life, such an individual is as much entitled to a “religious” conscientious objector exemption under § 6(j) as is someone who derives his conscientious opposition to war from traditional religious convictions.

Here the Court explicitly equates deep ethical stances with the same level of authority over the self as religion. In other words, atheists can file religious exemptions from military service even if their stance about war came merely from within instead of from a pulpit.

So What?

These cases are extremely important because, as I stated above, SCOTUS expanded religious exemptions to include anyone, even atheists, so long as their ethics resemble those of the religious. But furthermore, the Court separated itself completely from religion. Not only do ethics occupy the same place in atheists’ hearts as religion occupies in the faithful, religion occupies in the hearts of the faithful the same place ethics occupies in the atheists. In other words we not only have freedom of religion, the Court’s decisions in Seeger and Welsh exemplify that we indeed have freedom from religion. We need not pass a religious litmus test to enjoy a religious exemption from military service. Secular ethics are just as valuable as religious ethics.

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political scientist.
This entry was posted in Atheism and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Do Americans have freedom FROM religion? Actually, yes (two SCOTUS cases)

  1. Barry says:

    Reblogged this on Another Spectrum and commented:
    In my country conscientious objection to military service is based on ones conscience, not religion. Membership of a pacifist faith may make it easier to prove ones believe is genuine, but it’s not a requirement.

    Back in the 1970s when union membership was compulsory here, members of some faiths were granted exemptions on religious grounds. I applied for, and was granted an exemption based solely on pacifist principles without the mention of religion or religious beliefs at all (although I was prepared to bring those up if absolutely necessary).

    In this country, at least, I’ve found found more success in arguing for religious principles by not bringing religion into the discussion. If a religious principle can’t be supported by nonreligious argument, then one needs to rethink the principle.

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