The State vs. God

The age old legal debate on religious freedoms is still relevant today
UbuntuFM | The State vs. God | Photo credit: ECD communication/Adventist Review

Freedom of religion means freedom to hold an opinion or belief, but not to take action in violation of social duties or subversive to good order.  - Reynolds v. United States (1878)

When we think on or talk about ‘freedom of speech’, people’s opinions are mostly pretty clearcut. Yes, we should be able to speak freely about what is on our mind, regardless of the topic, as long as we don’t infringe upon another human being to that same basic human right.

With regard to ‘religious freedom’ or the right to exercise religious beliefs, our tabletop conversations may spark into heated debate.

For instance, religious freedom as a basic human right may fail to resonate with our atheist brothers and sisters for they have no concept of religious beliefs whatsoever. Or when news media and politicians tell us that religion, i.e. Islam, is a threat to society any well-intended dissertation on this topic may turn sour.

And yet legislative bodies, governments, emperors, kings and queens, have addressed the right to exercise religious beliefs and the establishment of religion throughout history.

The Magna Carta of 1215, widely held as one of the most important legislative documents in human history, the dawn of democracy, with some of its clauses remaining (in part) in modern day law of many (western) democracies, had this to say on ‘freedom of religion:

We have granted to God, and by this our present Charter have confirmed, for Us and our Heirs for ever, that the Church (of England) shall be free, and shall have all her whole Rights and Liberties inviolable. We have granted also, and given to all the Freemen of our Realm, for Us and our Heirs for ever, these Liberties under-written, to have and to hold to them and their Heirs, of Us and our Heirs for ever. 

The First Amendment, part of the group of 10 Amendments to the United States Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights (1791) - another piece of inspirational constitutional legislature - addresses the issue at hand in two clauses we can read as follows:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...

The clauses remained unchallenged for almost a century until in 1878 the US Supreme Court was called to interpret the extent of the Free Exercise Clause in Reynolds v. United States, as related to the prosecution of polygamy under federal law. The Supreme Court upheld Reynolds' conviction for bigamy, deciding that to do otherwise would provide constitutional protection for a gamut of religious beliefs, including those as extreme as human sacrifice.

Freedom of religion means freedom to hold an opinion or belief, but not to take action in violation of social duties or subversive to good order.

In modern times the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted. A milestone document in the history of human rights. Drafted by representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world, the Declaration was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948. In Article 18 we can read: 

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance. 

Appearantly the wise men and women of old were fully aware of the importance and significance of religious freedom as a fundamental part of the human condition and therefore as a basic human right.

Two recent examples come to mind in the dealings of sovereign states with the exercise of religious freedom.

The State vs. God


A five-year-long legal battle for the right to keep Sabbath has ended in a landmark victory for Seventh-day Adventist students in Kenya. The country’s top Appeals Court ruled as recently as March 2017 that the religious freedom provisions of Kenya’s constitution require that Adventist students be excused from classes and other school-related activities on Saturday. The decision overturns an earlier ruling that found no constitutional protection for Sabbath-keeping students. 

On Friday, March 3, 2017, a three-judge panel of Kenya’s Appeals Court ruled that Adventist students have the right to worship on Saturday, and it ordered the Kenyan Education Ministry to rework its policies to eliminate conflict between education and religion in schools.


Also in March 2017, Jehovah’s Witnesses started to mobilize a global response to threat of a ban in Russia. Threatened with an imminent ban on their worship in Russia, Jehovah’s Witnesses are responding with a direct appeal to Kremlin and Supreme Court officials for relief through a global letter-writing campaign. The Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses is inviting the over 8,000,000 Witnesses worldwide to participate. This in response to a claim that was filed on March 15, 2017 by Russia’s Ministry of Justice with the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation to label the Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia as extremist and therefore should be liquidated. 

From this case we may gather that the state may not target religious freedom or the establishment of religion as such, but rather the administrative entities that are necessary for any modern day religion to function properly. To label them as ‘extremist’ may sound rather extreme. 

We can learn from history that religious freedom, the exercise, the establishment and the institution thereof in governing or administrative bodies is deeply rooted in the human psyche. 

Kenya’s example shows that the state is capable of adapting to what significant portions of its citizens consider to be God’s Law and incorporate it into its affairs and legislature.

The Russian example is a sad reminder of the fact that centuries of historic relevance are no safeguard to political whim and/or favouritism.