The letter writer who said, “The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion” (letter, 3,19), misunderstands and misrepresents the First Amendment.
It reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It goes on to protect freedom of speech, press, peaceable assembly and petitioning for redress of grievances.
This amendment prohibits the establishment of a state religion and laws governing religious dogma that existed in Europe and England before and after the Reformation and Henry VIII’s split with the papacy, declaring himself head of the Church of England which remained doctrinally Catholic. “Heretics” continued to be tortured and killed under the Calvinists, Henry, “Bloody Mary Tudor” and Elizabeth I, who was somewhat more tolerant.
Contrary to what most of us learned in public school, the Puritan “Pilgrims” fled England not to establish freedom of religion in the colonies but to gain freedom to practice, and to impose, their brand of Christianity on others. They forbade theatrical performances, even of Shakespeare’s plays, as the work of the devil, and they burned, drowned or hanged their neighbors as “witches,” confiscating their property, often to the profit of the clergy.
America’s founders rejected the historical establishment and enforcement of religion by the state that they and their forebears experienced. “Free exercise” requires the state to stay out of our spiritual lives. Americans are entitled to believe, or not. Freedom of, and freedom from, religion are equally protected by the First Amendment – at least for now.