America’s Founding Fathers flagged religious freedom as a fundamental right in the very first line of the First Amendment to the Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

In my new blog On Freedom, I’ll be exploring freedom of religion and belief in the U.S. and well beyond the First Amendment’s reaches.

Religious freedom rally in Rio de Janeiro

The global state of religious freedom – Hundreds of human rights supporters gathered in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June 2011 to demand that Iran stop persecuting Bahá’ís and other religious minorities. Photo courtesy Comunidade Bahá'í do Brasil via Flickr


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Last year, the State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report identified eight countries guilty of “particularly severe violations of religious freedom” — Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan. These eight may be the worst of the worst, but they’re far from alone in restricting religious liberty, whether through violence, oppressive laws, or by merely looking the other way when abuses occur.

Freedom of religion is about the right to worship or to observe one’s faith freely, but it’s also about the right to question and to criticize others’ beliefs.

Blasphemy and apostasy are still criminal acts in dozens of countries. Blasphemous libel laws were only abolished in Wales and England (where I’m based) five years ago and are still on the books in Northern Ireland, Canada, New Zealand and parts of Australia. Some countries rarely invoke such laws. Others use them regularly to stifle speech and crush dissent.

Around the world, there are laws against breaching the sanctity of religion (Finland), injuring or defiling places of worship (India), defaming religious societies (Germany), vilifying a religion or lawful cult (Malta), injuring religious sentiment (Israel), insulting religious feelings (Russia) and maliciously mocking religious convictions (Switzerland) to cite just a few examples. The penalty for violating such laws? Fines, imprisonment and, in several countries, even death.

Laws and regulations on religious freedom should not be used to privilege one faith (or none) over another, but they should also not be used to suppress freedom of expression. I’ve been working on free speech for quite some time, as a founding member and editor at Free Speech Debate and more recently as digital policy advisor at Index on Censorship, both in England.

Given my background, don’t be surprised if my arguments here sometimes err on the side of freedom rather than aligning with a particular political party, ideology, nation or faith. One week I might harangue protesters for shouting down religious leaders at a rally. The next I might champion the protesters’ right to have done so in the first place. Freedom to preach and freedom of speech are, after all, both essential to basic freedom, as the First Amendment makes clear.

I’ll use this blog to explore today’s hot button issues, many of which have religious liberty at their core. In the U.S. that’s same-sex marriage, education, abortion, gun control…the list goes on. Internationally I might look at religious freedom policies in a particular region or country, comment on recent events, or post on-the-ground interviews and analysis from around the world. Rest assured, we won’t run out of topics to discuss.

In addition to regular blog posts, I’ll also recap the top religious freedom stories and developments each week. If you don’t want to wait until Monday morning for the recap, you can follow my Twitter stream @brianpellot.

 Rather than protest or outrage, I hope this blog prompts debate in the comments section below. Occasionally I’ll finish an entry by posing a question to readers based on what I’m writing about. Since this is just an introductory blog post, let’s get started with a general question to stir the pot.

In a famous First Amendment case, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote, “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”

Moving from free speech to religion, should shouting “There is no God” in a crowded house of worship be considered an act of religious freedom?

Worshippers and faith leaders probably have an opinion, some governments might too. But so do we, so let’s debate.

22 Comments

  1. Julie Carter

    In a house full of believers, the person shouting “there is no god” would not cause panic but would likely be hauled off to a mental hospital.

    I think I’m going to like your blog. Hope you get lots of debate.

  2. Earold Gunter

    Brian, I think your choice of topic for your blog is dead on. Nothing seems to divide us more as a society in America, with the possible exception of racism, than our beliefs, religious or not.

    In answer to the quotation you posed; shouting “There is no God” in a house of religious worship is not the same situation as SCJ Holmes, Jr. referred to in his opinion, and ironically was not the same situation in the case he was giving his opinion on.
    In his opinion the act he described may or may not have had intent to cause a panic, and with it potential physical harm, but it is reasonable to conclude that it would probably have done so.

    Shouting this in a house of religious worship, although counter productive if the intent were to convince those in the church that their is no God, also may or may not have intent to cause the same type of panic, and with it physical harm, but is not reasonable to conclude that it would have done so.

    So, it should be considered a freedom of speech, but not religious freedom because religious views were not in the words, but rather a lack thereof. However if this person were persistent in his speech to the point of causing a disruption of the services, which was presumably the intent of the gathering, I would think it would rise to the level of disorderly conduct, but only because it was not on public property.

    Live life, love people without the promise of the carrot, or the threat of the stick.
    Good day!

  3. I’m excited for this blog to get going. Exciting stuff.

    In regards to the question posed at the end of the entry, I think that the act in question would be one of religious freedom. With that said, though, I think the key when dealing with issues of religious freedom/freedom of speech is to have a bit of discretion and tact. Sure, you might be well within the confines of the law to antagonize a group of believers (or non-believers, as the case may be) but that doesn’t mean that you should. In the U.S., laws surrounding freedom of speech and religious expression are broad because, in my opinion, they have to be in order to have any real degree of efficacy. But with the promise of free expression comes the responsibility to use that right responsibly and constructively, rather than to attack others simply because we can. Here, as in all things, do no harm.

    • When considering issues of religious freedom and the freedom of expression on an international scale, one must be aware of the issue of cultural imperialism. Is the degree of freedom of expression that we embrace in United States, then necessarily the right degree of freedom of expression that everybody in the world should accept? Are we in United States not only the world’s policeman but the world’s cultural trendsetter as well?
      I have lived in the Middle East and visited elsewhere in the developing world. They are generally conservative cultures, certainly vulnerable to criticism on a wide variety of human rights issues. The repression of freedom of expression is, to one degree or another, horrendous. I don’t think that means that they should be judged according to the standard of United States, which is fairly exceptional.

      • Ah good old mushy liberal cultural relativism. So, you are fine with Iran excuting homosexuals because its part of their culture. You are basically saying some people in this world deserve more rights than others, which I would say is privileging “Western” culture over others. That’s an awfully smug, elitist view. How about forced marriages? Female genital mutilation?

        I have much more faith in universal values and the inherent dignity of human beings, no matter if they are “western” or not. In fact, the very notion of essentializing identities such as “western” smacks of reverse-orientalism that Said came to reject towards the end of his life. He lamented that many in the liberal academies had abused his theory as a morally bankrupt knee jerk anti-imperialism.

  4. Brian Pellot

    Brian Pellot

    Post author

    Some very interesting comments so far! I agree with Earold that my question is probably more a matter of free speech than religious freedom, despite lots of overlap between the two rights. It’s a theoretical scenario, but let’s not forget that members of the Russian band Pussy Riot were arrested and prosecuted for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” when they bashed out a “Punk Prayer” in a Moscow cathedral last year. Not totally dissimilar?

    • If you read the words of the rap by Pussy Riot, you would see that they are not an expression of their own religious commitments, but rather some very harsh, even profane, language about the Russian Orthodox Church. As others have said, this is an issue of freedom of expression, not freedom of religion. It is easy to define “The Orthodox religion of a hard penis” as religious hatred.
      I do, as an issue of freedom of expression, defend the right of Pussy Riot to attack and revile the political and moral power of the Russian government and the Russian Orthodox Church. But it has nothing to do with freedom of religion.

      • Well that is awfully circular – you sound like a Putin apologist. There is no right not to be offended – religion cannot be immune from criticism.

  5. Thank you for the chance to address these issues though your status as a Londoner makes your comments on the USA and its laws somewhat suspect. However, the First Amendment of the Constitution applies only to the Federal government. For a number of years after its ratification, individual states had official “state religions.” Recent cases of the Supreme Court give groups like the Westboro Baptist Church the right to be obnoxious in exercising their right of free speech. Lying, even knowingly lying, is protected as a right of free speech. Everything you address is a speech issue. I look forward to your blogs.

    • Actually, you are completely wrong. The first amendment now applies to the states by the doctrine of incorporation via the 14th amendment. So it applies to any organ of government, federal, state, or local.

      Also, there is absolutely no right to “lie” per se. First amendment rights are balanced against competing interests, such as defamation. The law is fairly complicated and not as clear cut as you seem to think.

  6. I know this might not be what you intended, but in the culture of our country in this society, given these alternate components of what Webster defines as worship:
    http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/worship – point 4 under Definition of worship: “extravagant respect or admiration for or devotion to an object of esteem ”; and under Examples of worship – “the media’s worship of celebrities,” I can think of several examples of settings where “shouting “There is no God” in a crowded house of worship [could] be considered an act of religious freedom,” if the idea of house of worship of money and celebrities is considered worship.

    • I think you have confused definitions. The Webster definition you cite is the fourth, indicating that it is not the primary definition of the word. It is a rather sloppy expansion of the use of the word to objects for which it was not originally intended. But then you apply that definition to a house of worship, where the term has a very explicit meaning. In the context of a house of worship, ask of worship are not only positive but the very reason for attendance. When you get to the fourth definition, worship has become a prejudicial word.
      Worship of celebrities is, in a religious sense, not worship at all.

  7. I had emailed Brian and said the following:

    The topic of your new blog has been a special interest of mine for several years now. I like your approach.

    My take on things is that the USA began with restricting the religious freedom of those the founders didn’t agree with. Native American religious freedom, obviously. But in addition, the goal was not so much religious freedom for all, but freedom from having to follow a particular form of religion that you didn’t agree with. Roger Williams’ story, co-founder of the state of RI, is a great example of this.

    I have dialogued recently through comments and replies exchanges at the LA Times article on the California law, SB 1172. http://ethnologystudy.blogspot.com/2013/09/comments-dialogue-at-la-times-article.html

    Last year I read an excellent book, highlighted at our public library, on the history of the NRA in the US. Blanking on the name of the book right now. Checking the library records for it.

    • This guy is an infamous “ex-gay” therapist who haunts any blog that even mentions anything related to gay rights. He has been exposed by several former clients as practicing questionable methods such as “touch therapy” with other closet cases.

      Be warned – he will post non-stop – most people just delete his nonsense…

    • Also, Brian he is probably going to really post here alot because, well, your picture is pretty hot. Take that as a compliment but be warned – Mike Jones obsesses over cute guys and then rants about the evils of homsexuality, It’s all very sad….

  8. As with so many things: Location, location, location.
    Shouting “there is no god” at a Friends Meeting may be loutish and boorish; shouting the same at a mass where the priest is decrying same-sex marriage from the ambo may be an act of political protest

  9. Roger Talley

    Brian raised the issue of Pussy Riot, and since I have examined it and the relationship between Russian and US law and culture on the subject, I wrote to him about an article I had written. At his request, I have posted a link to it here:

    http://www.examiner.com/article/pussy-riot-and-separation-of-church-and-state

  10. Buttcheeks. I would rather eat a glass container than deal with grass on a Thursday morning. That being said, I hope you all enjoy the time you spend with your zebra plants, because each of you have 11 months to live.

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