Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.This makes no sense unless the free exercise of religion includes the right not to worship at all. Without that interpretation, Atheists would not be afforded the full protection of the First Amendment.
And there are Atheists who make that claim. The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) lead by Annie Laurie Gaylor says that tax breaks for clergy give religious groups an "unfair advantage". This phrase implies competition, and this will become a bit ironic in the discussion below.
The Wisconsin-based group filed a lawsuit in California because they didn't like the parsonage (clerical housing) allowances granted there. Then they withdrew that suit and re-filed in Wisconsin. It seems somebody noticed that they didn't have legal standing to extend their busybody crusade across state lines. So they file their suit, claiming such tax breaks are unfair. The Federal government responded by extending the same tax breaks to the FFRF.
Talk about taking the wind out of someones sails!
Let's take a look at a definition. Wikipedia says, "Religion is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to the supernatural, and to spirituality." Do you see God in that definition? Nope. The USA Today article states "The Internal Revenue Service does require, among other things, that a "minister" be seen as a spiritual leader and provide services for a religious organization."
You can easily see how the FFRF relates humanity to the supernatural: it claims the supernatural doesn't exist. It takes a firm religious stand. The FFRF is not composed of your garden-variety Atheists, who are content to be apathetic about religion. They actively seek converts. They proselytize. They've gained not only followers in spirit, but those who make sizable donations: enough for them to acquire Freethought Hall, from which they publish books and podcasts and magazines which act as regular guidance to their followers on the spiritual matter of keeping God out of their lives. Among the services they offer is debaptism.
This is a religion in every legal particular. Nevertheless, they've received the revelation with the same response you might get from a blind bigot who's just been told he's Black.
The basic problem here is that the FFRF are not just religious... they're religious anti-zealots. Their purpose is to incite political opposition to religion, and they refuse to wrap their heads around the concept that there is NO "freedom from religion" guaranteed anywhere in the Constitution, not even by implication. If you're allowed to worship as you like... including not worshiping at all... you must allow others the same privilege. There is NO special privilege for the select minority that comprises their membership. They do NOT get to deny the rest of America their rights just because the FFRF has some stick up their butt that makes them desire the power to control other people.
Strict separation of Church and State is a fiction. The very fact that the First Amendment exists at all is proof of that. Here we have, in the highest law of the land, a Constitutional protection and guarantee of your right to worship as you see fit. This is the State actively protecting your Religion. Furthermore, this amendment does NOT state that Congress cannot pass a law that affects religions, only that they can't pass one establishing a religion or prohibiting free exercise thereof. This is solidly addressed in the courts by ruling that laws may not favor one religion over another. That this applies even to Atheists is proven by the Fed's treatment of the FFRF. (And frankly, after all the arguments I've had over the years over just this point, I feel more than a little vindicated.)
Look, I believe in as little government as is necessary for the smooth functioning of society. But I am also pragmatic: laws exist. And where they do, they have to be fair. In this case, the Feds came up with exactly the right choice. They applied the law fairly. That's what they're supposed to do.
But that fair treatment may have decimated the FFRF's argument that tax breaks for religious groups is an "unfair advantage"; and it may severely blunt one of the legal weapons they use in their crusades. And when you're as mean-spirited as these folks, you want every stick and stone you can throw. If they were to accept such a ruling of fairness, they would win a battle they didn't want to win, because it could lose them the war. It's the FFRF's very bulldog persistent focus on spirituality that got them into the predicament of being a class of litigant that litigates against the class of which they're a member (whew!). And now they're stuck between scylla and charybdis: their reaction has betrayed their true sentiment, and they may be lost either way. At the very least, they look a bit loony for rejecting a "victory".
That's my opinion, and I'm stickin' to it.