John Inazu on the Four Freedoms, Religious Liberty, and Assembly
Date: August 23rd, 2015

How do the “four freedoms” of the US Constitution’s First Amendment relate to one another?  And what has happened historically to this relationship.  Prof. John Inazu, associate professor of law and political science at Washington University (St. Louis), explores these questions with a particular focus on the relationship between the free exercise of religion and the right to assembly.  We talk about historical conceptions of the “four freedoms” and how the interrelatedness of these essential liberties have changed since the middle of the 20th century.  (Technically, we do note that there are “five freedoms” in the First Amendment, but we ignore the right of petition in this interview.)

The conversation begins with our usual banter to get to know the guest.  We discover that even though he has multiple degrees from Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill, John remains a solid fan of the Blue Devils.  He also explains his work as a lawyer for the US Air Force and why his position wasn’t categorized as a JAG and how this allowed him to avoid wearing a uniform.

We then jump into a discussion as to what the “four freedoms” are — free exercise of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and the right to assembly — and how these freedoms were conceived of early in US history.  (It is here where John notes that there is actually a fifth freedom — petition — that not many scholars pay attention to.)  John sets this discussion into a pluralist framework as conceived of by Madison and other Founding Fathers.  The idea here as that division and conflict are likely to be part of the political landscape and knowing how to manage it with a balanced set of freedoms is critical.  Tony notes from his own work that the freedoms listed in the First Amendment are separated not by periods, but by semi-colons, which seems to indicate some degree of contingency.  John agrees and we talk a bit about the connection between these rights, particularly with reference to religious free expression and the right to assemble peaceably.

It is mentioned that US history, despite the lofty goals of the US Constitution, has not always lived up to the ideal of preserving and protecting these freedoms for all.  John noted that the Founding Fathers did have their blind spots, particularly over race, and there have been many instances of minorities being denied freedoms or outright persecuted.  One of the important groups for our discussion is the Jehovah’s Witnesses who were quick to assert their rights of association along with the labor movement in the early decades of the 20th century.  We talk about how the height of “four freedom” rhetoric occurred in the 1930s and ’40s when the US was faced with a totalitarian threat overseas and was also put in a position of promoting freedom abroad.  This leads to a particularly fascinating discussion of the limits of freedom and how living up to high standards was difficult during the 1950s when there was concern over communist interests using the freedoms enshrined in the Constitution to undermine American democracy.  This problem, John notes, is endemic to a free nation that must balance an absolute right to freedom (which is hard to ever achieve) with the threat of imminent violence.



John Inazu’s bio at Washington University’s School of Law.

The Four Freedoms and the Future of Religious Liberty ,” by John Inazu (article at SSRN).

Liberty’s Refuge: The Forgotten Freedom of Assembly, by John Inazu.

Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference, by John Inazu (article for forthcoming book).

Theological Argument in Law: Engaging with Stanley Hauerwas, edited by John Inazu.


 David Cortman on Religious Liberty Updates.

Matthew Franck on Hosanna-Tabor and Ministerial Exemption.

Matthew Franck on Hobby Lobby and Religious Freedom Jurisprudence.

Jordan Lorence on Religious Property Cases.

Phillip Muñoz on Catholic Bishops, Religious Liberty, and Health Care Mandates.

Mark David Hall on Religion and the Founding Fathers.

One Response to “John Inazu on the Four Freedoms, Religious Liberty, and Assembly”

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