In his 1776 manifesto, “Common Sense,” Thomas Paine established the national project of “securing freedom and property to all men, and above all things, the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.” For Paine, it was all but common sense that people are free, and thus, free to choose their beliefs. In this America he envisioned, freedom reigned above all, and church and state were to be fully separated.
This notion is reflected in the First Amendment, whose first sentence reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Therefore, religion is protected from government interference, such that the government cannot interfere with an individual’s religious beliefs; and the government too is protected from religion, such that no religion shall take hold over the institutions of the United States. In a state separated from church, and church separated from state, individuals may freely subscribe to beliefs of their choosing.
This right to religious freedom is affirmed by the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee to privacy that “no State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” Therefore, the right to choose when, where, or why to attend church is private, taken out of the hands of the state and its laws. If I seek to sleep in on a Sunday, I have the right to do so. If I want to wake up early, dress in a suit and tie, and go to church, that’s also my right. At least in theory.
Throughout history, constitutional guarantees have been perversely interpreted, and we have fallen short of those guarantees. In the 2022 case Carson v. Makin, the Supreme Court held that states must use taxpayer dollars to fund religious schools as part of educational aid programs. That is a wrong decision. Decisions like these are made under the pretense that minors, unlike adults, don’t have religious freedom. The First Amendment, so goes the prevailing line of reasoning, does not extend to youth who refuse to attend church, but are nonetheless forced to by their parents; who want a secular education, but are pushed into a religious one by parents who use state funds; who don’t believe in religion, yet are punished by their families if they claim that they don’t; who seek to convert to another religion, but are prevented from doing so. By the same token, although the First and Fourteenth Amendments should establish government legislation that respects the right of individuals to choose their own religious beliefs, as a minor, my parents can choose my beliefs for me and force me to attend church against my will.
One might interject: the Constitution is about the right of the people against government, is it not? Sure. However, just as Congress shall not infringe on religious liberty, on privacy, it must also legislate in a way that allows for the free exercise of religion and the privacy of its citizens. In the same way that Congress cannot racially discriminate through the law, it cannot make laws that allow for racial discrimination; just as it cannot abridge the free speech rights of journalists, it cannot create laws that even allow for journalistic suppression. The Constitution operates both as protection from government and protection by government.
Even so, if you’re an American under 18, the painful truth is that you don’t have religious freedom. You cannot decide whether, when, or why you go to church. Further, those decisions do not fall within your right to privacy. The First and Fourteenth Amendments do not fully apply to you. This is an odd case, as certain aspects of the First Amendment, such as the right to free speech outside of school, apply to minors (to the extent that minors are generally not subject to curfew laws if they are exercising their First Amendment rights.) By selectively applying the First Amendment to minors, and failing to apply to Fourteenth Amendment, we create a double standard in which youth have less rights than adults so that their parents can force them to go to church in accordance with their personal will.
Americans of all ages ought to look at this country in the mirror and ask themselves, “is this the point of America, a country founded on the idea that all individuals ought to choose their beliefs for themselves?”
No. America cannot apply its principles of liberty selectively. Our amendments ought to shine for all Americans, young and old, sea to shining sea.
A broad First Amendment for youth would include the right to refuse to go to church. It would constitutionally protect minors who seek to convert religion or choose atheism or agnosticism. It would acknowledge the inherent liberty of all individuals, young and old, to believe as they wish. Expanding the First Amendment to include the rights of youth against religion would not just be a win for youth rights. It would be a victory for the American idea. It would go hand in hand with an acknowledgment of youths’ Fourteenth Amendment right to privacy, so that their beliefs may be acknowledged as their own. It would bring to youth two core American tenets: freedom and privacy.
A kid is dragged out of bed every Sunday morning. Their dad screams at them, forcing them to wear church clothes and make their way to the car. As they drive to church, the poor kid keeps to themself in the back seat, weeping, perhaps only silently, at this injustice. This makes the child hate church and amounts to religious trauma. In the future, I envision a more robust system of First and Fourteenth Amendment protections for youth. Government, state and federal, would legislate in compliance with these new interpretations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments that deem being forced into a religion and to go to church a violation of religious freedom and one’s right to privacy. Then, minors would be able to sue their parents if they violate their religious freedom. States and civil society organizations would work to give kids the legal resources they need to stand up for their rights. Schools would set up programs for minors to report violations and they could be transferred to more accepting foster families.
Of course, families are best kept together, not apart. The legal rights that come with new legislation by way of an expanded First and Fourteenth Amendment would be a last resort for kids who seek to exercise their rights. Ideally, families would acknowledge their children’s inherent right to religious freedom. Parents would be able to hold their differences aside and allow their kids to make their own choices. They would do so in the same way that they don’t drag adult atheists to church. It is not a lot to ask parents to accept that their children, like all other people, are free – free to speak their minds, believe their beliefs, and, yes, sleep in on a Sunday rather than wake up early for church service.