In the United States, freedom of religion holds an exalted place both in the founding documents of our government and in the minds of our citizens. That is not to say this freedom is never threatened; there are plenty of political leaders who are even proud of the persecution they encourage. But outside an unfortunately vocal fringe group, freedom of religion is still a tenet of American society, conservative and progressive segments of that society alike.
But should it be?
Suppose that tomorrow I convert to the Order of the Unicorn, a religion requiring me to worship the one and only Unicorn (absence of evidence is not evidence of absence!), a process requiring me to take every Friday off as a holiday, and Thursdays too, should the weather be pleasant. Taking the idea of freedom of religion to its logical conclusion, no employer could discriminate against me for my religious beliefs in the Unicorn, nor could they impede my ability to observe my holy days. Since the state has no more ability to ascertain my true beliefs than to change them, this inevitably leads to a compromise of the ideal. This compromise is the selection of either particularly popular religions, or religions that do not conflict with state traditions (for example, the five-day work week). And here we see the first difficulty of the principle of freedom of religion.
To illustrate the second major difficulty, suppose instead of converting to the Order of the Unicorn, I have no religious epiphanies, but instead I want to see my son play baseball on some Friday afternoon. My place of employment is closed on Christmas, even though that day is not a holiday for me. But I have no right to take a few hours off of work to support my son. The state, effectively, is imposing religious values, in fact specifically Christian values, by dictating that the celebration of some long-dead shepherd's son is more important than my own son. To this difficulty, the laws of supposedly enlightened governments offer no compromise.
The special place for freedom of religion, therefore, cannot be defended. Note that I am not arguing that the state has any right to interfere with the freedom of belief; such interference is ineffective, harmful, and delusional. Nor am I arguing for any actual curtailing of religious freedom. What I have tried to show is that anything currently protected by religious freedom, at least anything that in fact deserves legal protection, must be protected instead by secular civil liberties. Only when such a system is in place will atheists be treated equally by the law.
If you are a young non-theist who wants their voice to be heard, consider submitting an article of your own to Generation Atheist. Visit our submissions page for details.
Tomorrow: Art and Religion by Caroline K. Another quick note, the blog is still going through its techy phase, so if you arrive and there's something weird here, don't worry - everything will be sorted out in the end. Hopefully.