The First Amendment frees each and every American from the need to accept
anyone elseís beliefs. It gives each person his or her own liberty
of conscience. This means the First Amendment provides simultaneously
a freedom from any religion as well as a freedom of
choice in religion.
Freedom of conscience is inclusive--the
liberty is for everyone. All Americans are free to belong to the religious organization
of their choice, thereby rejecting the claims of any other faith
system. At the same time, Americans are free to create new
religions, thereby rejecting all other established religions. They
are also free to choose not to belong to or believe in any religion.
No matter what the choice, each and every American maintains full
status as a citizen.
The rights accorded all Americans by their Constitution have been
widely recognized and acclaimed, not only by those in the legal
profession, but also by those in religious circles as well. For
example, the American Baptist Churches have had a long history
supporting individual human rights. Resolutions by the American
Baptist Churches over the years have particularly sought to reflect
the denominationís basic principles of freedom of thought and
belief, and the right of dissent.
As American Baptists we declare the following rights to be
basic human rights, and we will support programs and measures to
assure these rights: 1) The right of every person to choose a
religion freely, to maintain religious belief or unbelief without
It is important to note that this portion of the Resolution
recognizes the rights of persons who endorse "unbelief" in
religion as a basis for life. The rights that the resolution claims
for those who "maintain religious belief" are the same
rights afforded to those who choose not to maintain such beliefs.
On May 26, 1988, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin addressed the Center
for Clinical Medical Ethics, University of Chicago Hospital. His
subject was "Euthanasia: Ethical and Legal Challenge." He
began his address as follows:
One of the hallmarks of our democratic system of government and
our social environment here in the United States is the fact that
a plurality of views informs our public discourse regarding
fundamental human questions. At times, these views flow from
religious beliefs. At other times, they derive from philosophical
or pragmatic judgments about the meaning and purpose of life. This
pluralism is the result of the free speech accorded by the
Constitution to each citizen as well as the right both to freely
exercise oneís religion and to practice no religion.
As one might expect, Cardinal Bernardinís guiding principles were
derived from his Roman Catholic faith. However, the Cardinal, like those
of the Baptist faith, recognized and acknowledged the rights of other
Americans to accept no religion and to base their guiding principles on
a philosophy (or philosophies). This idea has important overtones
regarding the responsibilities of both government and education.
Wall of Separation