"The legitimate powers
of government extend to such acts
only as are injurious to others.
But it does me no injury
for my neighbor to say
there are twenty gods, or no God.
It neither picks my pocket
nor breaks my leg."
Thomas Jefferson
(1743-1826), US Founding Father, drafted the Declaration of Independence, 3rd US President
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Reader comments about this quote:
Thus, any attempt to extend one's views on religion to others--whether by Christendom, Communism, Islam, Humanism or other--is a violation of freedom.
 -- Donovan, Chicago     
  • 1 6
    I think that Jefferson was saying that since voicing one's views cannot harm you, there is no need for government to interfere, so long as it isn't the government trying to extend the views of one particular sect or creed. Freedom of speech doesn't just include the right to speak your mind without fear of censorship, it also includes the freedom to turn off the radio, turn off the TV, or walk away from the protest rather than whining to your local politician about how your rights were violated because you had to listen to someone else's drivel
     -- Josh, Palm Springs     
  • 8
    Yes. Thank you, Thomas Jefferson. Unfortunately, the government still seems to think it's okay to endorse theism when it's obviously unconstitutional.
     -- Anonymous     
  • 3 6
    In other words, the only authority government should have is the power to stop people from harming each other. Nothing more.
     -- Dani, Coppell     
  • 2 5
    Do as you will but harm none. How can I say that my beliefs are truer than yours? We have Unalienable Rights. If only the people could actually understand the power we have. When the people lead the leaders will follow. JustMyThoughts42.
     -- Ron Price, Indianapolis     
  • 3 1
    All of this is fine...provided the government does not try and take the role of "God Himself". Jefferson was wise beyond his time.
     -- J Carlton, Calgary     
  • 4
    No, it is NOT a violation of freedom to extend one's views on their religion to another, Donovan. That would, however, be a violation of a person's free speech, to say that a person cannot sharebe their views. Religion becomes a problem when the govt tries to force you into it. Thus, it does you no injury if someone tries to share their religion with you. It might annoy you, but it doesn't pick your pocket nor break your leg.
     -- LibertyForUSA, Charleston     
  • 11
    In defense of the 1st Amendmet (First portion): "Congress shall make no law respecting an establisment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...." Gov cannot say: you will now all belong to and be loyal to and attend the (put any church, temple, synagog, mosk, here) ___ or be fined or jailed. Thus, you have the LIBERTY TO CHOOSE to attend somewhere or stay home, or believe nothing. YOU HAVE THE FREEDOM to choose for YOURSELF. And equally, the gov CANNOT DENY another their freedom of choice to do the same. Therefore, one CAN extend their beliefs to you, however, you can turn on your heel, change the subject, leave the building, etc., and neither of you will have given up freedom here, Donovan in Chicago. Freedom of religion has been allowed and your freedom to leave has been allowed as well. It is why in America, a place people came to escape religious persecution and still do, we have a great many faiths and beliefs, and why we exercise tolerance.
     -- Abby     
  • 3
    Under the founding of this great Limited Republic we have the unalienable right to practice a religion or to practice none. We have the right to say or do as we wish as long as we cause no harm to another individual or their property. The government cannot establish a state religion and neither can it deny an individual a right to practice their beliefs.
     -- Mary - MI     
  • 3
    Jefferson was one of the greatest men whoever lived. Comparing him to someone like Harry Reid would be as a giant to a cockroach.
     -- jim k, Austin, Tx     
  • 3
    For centuries, religion and government were combined -- indeed one's legs would be broken (and worse) if you did not adopt the beliefs of the rulers -- this was one of the reasons people left England and Europe for the new world. In America, freedom of religion was unique in all the known world, and one could choose from dozens of belief systems and the fellowships that resulted from them. Of course, in those days, various Christian traditions were the norm, and as past generations were forced to accept them, a tradition of religion was well ingrained in the People -- and specifically Christian faiths, often at odds with each other (e,g, Calvinists vs. Catholics). Even in the new world, the Puritans punished dissenters cruelly. I would ask those 'conservatives' that seem to be really 'Christian' religionists to consider that Jefferson's Declaration of Independence uses the terms 'our Creator' and 'Nature's God' as a foundation of our natural born and inalienable rights -- not Jesus, or any specific Christian reference to a god. With all we know today about the origins of the Roman Catholic church, I think it is more than fair to say that it is no more 'truth' than Judaism, Islam, Mithraism (which shares most of the Jesus story with Christianity and preceded it by several hundred years), or the ancient Egyptian solar mythos. If there is ever a chance of peace in this world, we must come to terms with these facts and the words of Jefferson. Most of the support for the US wars in the Middle East are from 'Christians' who believe Islam is taking over the world -- which it may well be, but not because we have put Jefferson's words into practice -- in fact it's because we have NOT. (Neither have they put the words of Jesus into practice either I might add.)
     -- E Archer, NYC     
  • 3 1
    Greatest and wisest man who ever lived. If he could see what this country has become, he'd turn over in his grave.
     -- Robert K. Greco, Ney York City     
  • 2
    while it is true that my neighbor can share his thoughts on religion with me, I should have the right to say I do not want to listen and he shuts up. just like I have the right to say I don't want to hear the gossip about Frank, and the neighbor follows me around, yelling and telling me, even when I plead for him to let me be.
    "your right to throw a punch stops at the edge of my nose".
     -- Anonymous, san jose     
  • 2
    He's saying that the government's power to act extends only when a person's activity harms someone else's. It does him no harm what his neighbor's religion is, so he doesn't care. This line sums up to me the reason that government should not be able to prohibit gay marriage. I am a conservative, but my outlook on gay marriage is: it doesn't harm me, so what do I care?
     -- Jeremy S., Lexington     
  • 5
     -- Jeremy S., Lexington      
    He is speaking here of the government's authority to punish. It can't punish that which is not harmful to others. He is NOT speaking about whether people who do believe can use religious principles of thought to vote or support legislation or whether people who believe (or who don't believe) can try to spread their beliefs as they see fit. Of course they can. He is a chief proponent of the idea that we have complete freedom to act upon our religious convictions, including in the public forum (he chose to have his authorship of the Virginia Statue For Religious Freedom engraved on his tombstone rather than his presidency). I have a somewhat low opinion of the quote for other reasons, particularly because he doesn't seem to have a very robust idea of what impacts others or is harmful to others. If people have false conceptions about God, if they can't agree on basic terms of morality, this impacts the unity and cohesion of the republic. While this doesn't mean his conclusion is wrong (it isn't... in our system there should be no punishment for religious beliefs or lack thereof), I respectfully believe that certain beliefs (or disbelief) can indeed be harmful to the larger community.
     -- James, Washington, DC     
  • 2
    I would have to say that we as a people have become vastly polarized. We've taken sides, turned on each other, and now wish to force the opposition to agree with our opinions. If you believe that gay marriage is right, good for you, but the majority of you all need to chill the heck out. You claim freedom of expression yet deny it to others, i.e. those who disagree with your marriage. I believe it is unnatural and against God's will, but so long as it doesn't effect me, you could marry your dog for all I care. Just stop the bigotry against religious people. If you don't agree with it, then don't bother yourself with it, but don't deny other people their freedom to express their opinions/believes. They may be wrong or right, but like Jefferson said, 20 gods or one so long as it doesn't negatively impact me, I don't care.
     -- Gerrit, SLC     
  • 2
    Apparently, Thomas Jefferson never met a Muslim.
     -- Ron, Sacramento     
    People of no faith are so quick to claim that the government is advancing theism, so, are they OK with the government and the public square being proponents of a-theism? Places where mention of God by any name is banned? Then a-theism becomes the state religion. Sticky wicket, that.
     -- Mama G, Tucson     
  • 1
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