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The State of Religious Liberty

The State of Religious Liberty

Religious freedom is one of our most precious rights. It is deeply engrained in our social and political culture, and a long-standing commitment to religious freedom is shared by religious groups across the theological spectrum. The same is true of the principle of church-state separation, which is an important part of religious freedom as it is understood in the United States. Practically no one wants to see an established or official church, and very few people think we'd be better off if we all shared the same faith.

While we all agree that religious freedom is a good thing, we don't all agree on what it means. And it's not just that the law is unclear, though it is; Supreme Court decisions on the First Amendment's religion clauses are famously confused and inconsistent. At a deeper level we as a people have different and often conflicting understandings of what sorts of practices should be permitted in the name of religion, the role the government should play in accommodating citizens' religious practices, the extent to which religious groups should influence public policy, and similar matters. Policies and laws that for some seem to protect religious freedom look to others like special privilege. Religious influence on public issues is an important and deeply felt expression of faith for some people, while to others it seems corrupting and coercive. These are difficult and important issues, and our views about them are affected by our political and theological starting points.

These differences were evident at the congressional hearings last October on "The State of Religious Liberty in the United States." The hearings were held by the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution. All three witnesses who appeared before the committee agreed that we face serious threats to religious freedom today, but they strongly disagreed on what those threats were.

The most liberal perspective was offered by Rev. Barry Lynn, Executive Director of American United for Separation of Church and State, who is also an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and an attorney. One of the threats Lynn pointed to is the bigotry and fear still prevalent in the United States against religious minorities. This appears in both official actions such as zoning denials for new houses of worship and community reactions such as protests, intimidation and vandalism. Public officials and private groups who oppose the construction of Muslim mosques, for example, may frame their opposition in terms of parking problems or residential zoning rules. Yet privately they often admit that they just don't want Muslims (or some other group) in their neighborhood and that they would not be opposed to the construction of Christian churches on the same spots.

Another threat comes from instances of government-compelled religion. A town in Alabama has an ordinance that allows misdemeanor offenders to avoid punishment if they attend church services weekly for a year. Publicly funded mission groups that provide food and shelter to the homeless often require recipients to attend worship services, mostly Christian, as a condition for receiving the aid. Lynn argues that forcing people to choose between jail and church or between food and religion is precisely the kind of coercive official action the First Amendment is designed to prevent.

The most conservative view was that of Colby May, Senior Counsel and Director of the American Center for Law and Justice, a Christian-based advocacy organization founded by Pat Robertson with offices at Regent University. The ACLJ argues for interpretations of the First Amendment that would expand the ability of federal and state governments to promote religious views. Among other things, it supports the display of religious symbols by public officials, such as posting the Ten Commandments in courthouses, and seeks to expand the space for prayer and other religious practices in public schools. May argues that court decisions holding these sorts of official actions unconstitutional amount to a judicial threat to religious freedom.

My own position on these matters is basically the same as Lynn's. Government support of religion, while typically framed in neutral terms, is often expressed in Christian terms. This demonstrates a profound lack of respect for persons of other faiths as well as for nonreligious persons. It also sends a message that it is okay to view minority faiths as inferior and less worthy of constitutional protection.

When people support government-sponsored religious practices in the name of religious freedom, there is a serious disconnect. Our religious freedom is weakened, not strengthened, by official religious activities. I'm in pretty good company on this point. James Madison reminded us that "religion flourishes in greater purity without, than with the aid of government," and Baptist founder Roger Williams insisted that religious freedom is best protected when church and state are strictly separated. I can't help thinking that those who want the government to sanction their religious practices are really seeking religious power, not religious freedom. It will be interesting to see what conclusions the congressional committee will draw on these matters.

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