Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Right to Refrain from Speaking

“Just as the right to speak and the right to refrain from speaking are complementary components of a broader concept of individual freedom of mind, so also the individual's freedom to choose his own creed is the counterpart of his right to refrain from accepting the creed established by the majority. At one time it was thought that this right merely proscribed the preference of one Christian sect over another, but would not require equal respect for the conscience of the infidel, the atheist, or the adherent of a non-Christian faith such as Mohammedism or Judaism. But when the underlying principle has been examined in the crucible of litigation, the Court has unambiguously concluded that the individual freedom of conscience protected by the First Amendment embraces the right to select any religious faith or none at all.”
— Justice Stevens for the majority, Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38, June 4, 1985.

The above quotation and the Supreme Court decision from which it came are important for non-believers.  We should all be aware of them and what they mean.  They mean that the right to choose not to believe is just as important as the right to choose which church to join.  In other words, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does not just protect believers as some have tried to maintain.

Also important is the recognition that the right to refrain from speaking is just as important as the right to speak.  This is particularly important in school prayer and other "captive audience" cases where believers put people on the spot and force them to declare their beliefs in some fashion--such as publicly failing to participate in prayer or refusing to answer a question.  In such cases, the right to remain silent can only be protected by forbidding the government from taking actions that will put people in such situations.

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