Universalizing religious freedom

Commenter David Bruggeman asks some sharp questions on my recent post:

The limits of religious freedom are an important part of these discussions. At what point does the behavior that could be defended under these laws become a violation of the establishment clause? Does the permissible discrimination target and/or benefit particular faiths? When does free exercise for some mean coercion of others? If I don’t share your faith, what right do you have to infringe on me to satisfy your faith-based obligations? [Emphasis added-PK]

I agree that the limits of RF are an important part of these discussions. My preferred approach is to universalize/secularize Bruggeman’s questions. Take his first and last questions. I’m not sure why religious faith is singled out. Any freedom has limits, not just RF. We all have deep beliefs we want to infringe on others. Scientists, for example, want to impose a certain vision of science literacy on the public. And they (we!) use the coercive power of the state to accomplish these goals. Many people don’t share Lawrence Krauss’s vision of science. Why not ask that last question to him as well?

From my reading of political theory, these questions are ones we would ask anyway in Democracy 101. A country full of atheists would still disagree on what constitutes a good life and how to balance individual freedom and collective action.

I suspect my religious audience will respond along the lines of: “What? Are you really saying RF is not special? But it’s in the Constitution!” And my secular readers may feel: “Do you honestly think Krauss’s love of science is no different than the loving an imaginary God? That science is not special?” To both groups I would say: Yes.


  1. Aside from referencing religious freedom in a discussion that I thought was about religious freedom, I singled it out because it is considered special (independent of whether or not it is). When balancing competing interests (or protected classes), I think the use of coercion or the sanctioning of it (by providing legal defenses for it), is a useful consideration to determine if protections are unbalanced.

    Krauss doesn’t have the power of the state or a church to impose his will on others without their consent. And the questions posed by the current conflict over religious freedom is a competition between different individual freedoms, and which (if any) get the sanction of the state.

    1. While I agree with you in principle, I suspect we will come down differently on particular issues.

      But thanks for your analysis. Really appreciate the thoughtful comments.

  2. The constitution covers other freedoms that were denied through coercion involving the state and the church often by complicity.

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