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.


  1. I found your site when googling “protect kids from religious trauma”. I know first hand that even if kids were somehow able to be kept home from church, much of the damage is done from the religious practices and beliefs within the home. I don’t see how legislation can ever provide a way out of this, but I’m all ears if you ever come across a way…

      1. in my opinion, it’s more complicated than this.
        It’s a given for the world that birth is an extremely positive thing, and I can see why. It takes a whole lot of effort, time and pain, often loses you money. Birth creates a life. Birth is creation.

        A small but growing amount of people think the opposite. Antinatalists say that if you have a child, you are somewhat responsible for any misery they will encounter. They also say the child did not consent to being birthed, did not want to be born, so you birthing them is a wrong. Additionally, you can pass on negative things about yourself.

        I am somewhere in between. Just like creation of anything else, creation of life is not fundamentally positive or negative, but more neutral. Other things matter more. Why did you decide to have a child? Do you have the emotional and financial means to take care of them?

        What’s even more important to me is what they do after the birth. For an extreme example, if you birth a child and then do not feed it (and nobody else feeds it), that is negative. But if you feed them, give them water, change their diapers, you’re positive so far!
        But if you feed them for the month and then don’t and they starve, it’s negative again. Parents owe to their children the child’s basic physical needs, and in my opinion there’s no reason this shouldn’t apply to other things that would improve the child’s life.

        As a “Child” myself, (I’d consider myself more a teenager but still) I don’t like it when my birth is used against me, by my parents or by others. It actually feels pretty terrible. I didn’t make a choice to be born, my parents did and they have a responsibility to make my life worth it. Why wouldn’t they?

        Why do children owe complete obedience to their parents but parents only owe their children food and water?

        To recap: I don’t think birth should be considered as such a heavenly good act it cancels out any bad, nor as a hellish evil act. I think birth is a neutral act and parents should be judged on what they actually do and don’t do for the child.

        That’s the main point, but here’s a few more things:
        Why do parents have the ultimate say? Why not partial?
        Why 18 years? Why not 25? Why not forever (they did birth you after all)? Why not 5? Why not some rights at 10, some at 13, some at 16, some at 18, some at 21, and some at 25?

        One more thing: There are many different churches and religions. You might be sure your religion is a good one where it would benefit youth to go to, even if they don’t want it, and actively despise it.
        But there are gay churches and there are anti-gay churches. There are racist churches and there are anti-racist churches. Whatever your church is, there are ones that are the polar opposite.

        There are atheist churches, and there are satanist churches. The same way other parents of other religions could, satanist parents can force their children to go to satanist churches. Children that want to go to church but their parents don’t go, they could be not allowed.

        This was longer than I expected, I’ve been a bit blunt with this, and you’re not going to agree with it all. But it’s important that we have these discussions instead of taking the most popular adult view as fundamental. I’m glad you commented here instead of (or maybe in addition to) a rant on social media, even though I don’t agree with you.

        Have a great day.

  2. this article is messed up. I just want to say that as long as your parents aren’t abusing you in a large and very harmful way than your parents can kinda bring you to church or not bring you to church if they want. Also your parents can influence your ideas once your an adult and they birthed you so naturally they get to raise and teach you whatever the hack they want you to.

  3. I see here a level of timidity, where there is hesitation to express another truth that shouldn’t be controversial at all, but which is vociferously denied with the most absurd of reasoning.

    Truth is, governments have no right to steal money to spend on education. They have no right to force people to shell out their own earning to fund government-run indoctrination centers where they teach children that homosexuality is not a choice, how to do math with imaginary “numbers,” and all about how lucky they are to live in a free country. Governments also have no right to deploy gun-toting goons in bulletproof vests to intimidate children into attending such indoctrination.

    In a free country, schools would have to compete against each other. A school with a bullying problem or a drug problem would quickly address it or go out of business. Schools would compete on many different issues, such as safety, academics, hours, and locations. If your home in Texarkana burns down, at least you could still go to the same school with students you know, even if you have to move into a place on the other side of State Line Avenue. Parents would not be forced to turn down better-paying jobs that conflict with the schedule dictated to them by bureaucrats. Families from tropical countries could visit in January when it’s cold in the northern U.S.A. instead of waiting until summer vacation.

    Zoning restrictions are imposed as a way to prevent more families from acquiring a legal residence within town limits, to prevent them from enrolling their children in government-run school.

    Some folks vote for candidates who support public school, honestly feeling that every child somehow has a right to an education at somebody else’s expense. When school taxes climb, they tell local bureaucrats to impose tougher zoning restrictions to prevent more families from moving into the town, and they tell Congress to add more U.S. Border Patrol goons, to prevent more families from moving into the country. Now, what were they saying about “every” child? If families cannot afford to educate their own children, how can they afford a bureaucracy to educate their children, and how in the world will they afford a million-dollar house and yard required by the zoning restrictions?

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