IT is clear that government cannot become the judge of men’s consciences; and that the plea of conscientious conviction cannot be accepted as a final and sufficient defense in all cases of violation of law. What rule, then, can be adopted which will preserve the authority of the State and yet not trench upon the rights of conscience?
The question thus raised is well answered by a clause in the constitution of the State of Maryland: “No person ought, by any law, to be molested in his person or estate on account of his religious persuasion or profession, or for his religious practice, unless under color of religion, he shall disturb the good order, peace or safety of the State…. or injure others in their natural, civil, or religious rights.” In this the line is drawn just where it should be, namely, at the equal rights of others. Under this provision the courts are not called upon to judge any man’s conscience, but only to judge whether or not his conscience leads him to infringe the equal rights of his fellowmen. That a man’s conscience is just what he says it is, no man has either right or occasion to deny. A man’s statement of his conscience is an end of controversy; but it does not follow that one has a right to do whatever his conscience tells him is right for him to do. There is a difference between conscience and the rights of conscience. No man, however conscientious, has any right to infringe the equal right of another; and at this point civil government has a right to take cognizance, not of any man’s conscience, but of the relation of the act to the rights of others.
The principle briefly stated is this: No man should be either required or forbidden to do any act contrary to conscience, however erroneous that conscience may be, unless the doing or forbidding to do that act trenches on the equal rights of others. This rule would (1) abrogate all civil laws requiring the observance of Sunday or of any other day; and (2) it would leave the courts free, not to judge men’s conscience, but to protect all men against wrong in the name of conscience. But this is only saying in other words that which we have said many times before, namely, that civil governments are instituted not to create or to “grant” rights, but to guarantee the free and untrammeled exercise of equal, natural, God-given, inalienable rights, and that of these the highest and most sacred is perfect freedom in matters of religious belief and practice.