Fair warning / disclaimer: This post is going to be US-centric, since it invokes themes involved with the First Amendment to the US Constitution. I sincerely believe every government should provide similar rights and I give a thumbs up to the governments that agree with me. And yes, I know the US is far short of perfect in its record of living up to the principles behind the First Amendment, especially for religious freedom. This post is largely intended to counteract common ideas used to subvert these freedoms while invoking their name.
Freedom of Speech/Freedom of Expression:
You are, for the most part, free to say whatever you want without fear of the government punishing you for doing so. The exceptions include things like violent threats, slander, libel, and fraud.
This also means I am free to say what I want, including what I think about something you said. If you say something, I am free to say your expressed ideas are false, idiotic, or bigoted and my reasons for thinking so. This is not “censorship.” This is not “silencing.” This is criticism. If someone criticizes you, it does not prevent you from speaking your ideas. My freedom of speech does not conflict with yours. My criticism did not and does not prevent you from speaking, but it might convince people to make the choice not to listen to you. You are not entitled to a captive audience. If you don’t want your ideas to be subject to criticism, free speech is your enemy, not your shield.
Freedom of speech does not grant immunity from social consequences of your speech. If you say something many people find reprehensible, private citizens remain free to publicly criticize you, shun you, ignore you, ridicule you, boycott products you sell, or other legal actions to make life harder for you, so long as they don’t cross legal lines. You are not entitled to be popular or even liked. You are not entitled to control how other people feel about you. You are not entitled to control what people say about you. You are not entitled to customers.
Freedom of speech does not give you the right to every platform. For example, if someone working for a television network says something reprehensible on air, that network can choose to disassociate itself with that person by canceling his show, within the limits of their contracts or by putting up a disclaimer stating that his opinions do not necessarily reflect the network’s. The speaker’s right to free speech is not reduced because a platform chooses to withdraw the use of their media. The speaker still has numerous options for expressing his thoughts, from using his own voice, writing a blog, or publishing a book. He is not inherently entitled to the television network’s resources if they don’t want him to use them. He does not get to control the network’s decision whether or not to associate with him.
Freedom of Religion:
The United States government is, in principle, prohibited from respecting or endorsing an establishment of religion. This is supposed to mean that there can be no official government religion in the US and no government favoritism that can be abused. For practical purposes, this even excludes the possibility of endorsing atheism. Government endorsement can be and is often construed as authoritative. This means that people of the endorsed belief can feel they have authorization to unfairly wield government power in the name of their belief. This also means that people of a minority belief can be intimidated by the threat of government force and be discriminated against. Even the fear of possible discrimination is destructive because it discourages the free and open discussion of ideas. The separation of church and state exists to protect individuals from having the government impose an unwanted religion on them or on children who aren’t old enough to make an informed decision. It’s for everyone’s protection, including Christians, since there are some regions where a non-Christian religion is the majority belief. If Christianity is allowed to become the state religion, the question will likely become “which Christianity?”, leading to discrimination against Christians for being the “wrong” denomination.
You have the right to believe what you want. You are not entitled to impose your religious beliefs on others through government actions. You are not entitled to have the government proselytize on your behalf. If you work for the government, you are not entitled to use your position to endorse a religion. If you are a public school teacher, you are not entitled to lead your students in prayer, especially since children are easily manipulated or intimidated by authority figures. This is made worse by the fact that students are a captive audience since school attendance is usually compulsory. Leading a prayer also often unnecessarily forces a student of different beliefs to choose between the risk of bullying because of his non-participation or to go through the motions against his will. Neither of these is conducive to a nurturing learning environment and undermines the student’s ability to trust the government. How can a student believe the government will respect his rights if it shows open contempt for his autonomy of belief?
As a private citizen, you have the right to pray and not be discriminated against for that decision. As a private citizen, I also have the right to not pray and not be discriminated against for choosing non-participation. Students have the right to pray on their own private initiative, so long as they do not disrupt school activities. Many people assert that students’ right to pray was taken away. This is a lie. The precedent is that public school teachers are not allowed to initiate prayers while presenting themselves as a teacher because doing so would constitute a government endorsement of and favoritism toward a religion.
You have the right to display the Ten Commandments or large crosses on your property, within the limits of building codes, safety codes, and such. This includes displaying them in a fashion that is highly visible to the public. You are not entitled to have the government display religious imagery on government ground. Atheists are not in favor of prohibiting religion from the public sphere, because doing so would likely lead to the prohibition of other ideas, including our own, especially since atheism is currently an unpopular belief. We want the government to respect it’s prohibition on endorsing religion.
You have the right to build a church using your private resources, fitting within zoning laws and building ordinances. For the same reason, Muslims also have the right to build a mosque using their private resources under the same laws and ordinances. If Muslims building a mosque near the World Trade Center site hurts your feelings, too bad. Your hurt feelings do not allow you to impose your will on the mosque builders. They are within their human rights to carry out legal religious acts like building a place of worship. We shouldn’t make an exception to basic human rights just because someone’s feelings might get hurt.
Rights in General:
The United States was not established to be a mob rule anarchy. It was established to be a constitutional democracy. People shouldn’t be allowed to vote to take away a minority group’s rights. People shouldn’t be allowed to vote to take away an individual’s rights. Allowing the majority to vote away one person’s rights means that they’re no longer rights, but a privilege granted at the whims of popularity and fashion. The majority rule must give way to the basic rights of the individual and the minority, otherwise it sets a precedent for removing our freedoms altogether. Everyone is a minority in one issue or another, and it’s naive to think that making an exception to discriminate against one minority can’t be used in the future to discriminate against you.