Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Freedom of Religion or Freedom from Religion?

Every year at this time I do a blog about the meaning of Christmas.  For the last several years I have been alarmed by the slow removal of our rights to celebrate Christmas as we have done for generations. For that reason, I feel the need to address this subject rather than my annual Christmas Blog. 

While tackling  this subject it occurred to me I would never be able to address it  as elegantly as Richard Wells, National Write Your Congressman's Western Division Manager.  Richard writes the "Patriots Perspective" for NWYC.  He generously agreed to be my first guest blogger.  Thank you Richard.  

These are his words...

Freedom of Religion or Freedom from Religion?

With the Winter Solstice upon us and snow beginning to fall, Christmas spirit begins to rise for much of the nation.  It’s a season of giving, caroling, Santa Claus, Nativity scenes and for decades now a new tradition--the tradition of lawsuits over religious expression.  This month in the news for instance, a West Point Cadet quit the academy because of religious activity and its encouragement by several officers, claiming that they were violating their oath to defend the Constitution.  Contrast that to an old tradition set by the first commander of the US military, General Washington, where he closes his final orders to the army at the end of the Revolutionary War with a prayer.  Later as President of the US and Commander and Chief of the military, he often publicly called upon God to support the nation.          
But this shouldn’t just be about tradition, so perhaps a few more examples can add clarity to this whole religious freedom thing.  In September of this year, the Connellsville Area School District of PA was sued in an attempt to have the 10 Commandments monument removed from the lawn of one of its schools, yet in 1935, the Supreme Court Building for the United States of America was constructed with religious references and an engraving of the Ten Commandments—law makers approved the plans.  Then in December last year the mayor of Warren, Michigan was sued for allowing a Christmas Nativity Scene in the City Hall Atrium. However, Thomas Jefferson recorded his approval that the Charlottesville Courthouse near his home in Virginia was used by the four denominations in the area for religious services.  His only concern was equal access and so the four alternated preaching every fourth Sunday and congregants from each sect attended.  In light of these diametrically opposed views on religion in the public square, which interpretation of the first amendment which guarantees religious freedom should be adopted? After all isn’t there supposed to be a wall separating church and state? 
Actually, the phrase separation of church and state does not appear in any of our National Documents, but comes from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote nearly fifteen years after the Constitution was signed.  The letter was not a directive to government but was sent to a religious group.  The Constitution actually reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”  It was intended to ensure that the Federal Government (the constitution grants power to The States in this area), not designate any religion as supreme over another nor to act in anyway which prohibits the free exercise of religion.  It appears then by their actions that they didn’t want God removed from public discussion, but rather they wanted government removed from dictating the nature of that discussion.  After all, they understood their history.  They knew that valiant men like Hus, Tyndale and Rogers were all executed for translating and distributing copies of the Bible in opposition to the religious and political authorities of the day who forbade such activity.  They saw how their work and the work of many others allowed for self-study, the codification of language and a burning desire for wider religious and political freedom.  This desire was so deep that many more would risk everything to establish self-governing political and religious bodies in America.  Ironically, many of these groups disallowed religious freedoms to others outside their sect.  And so it was from this perspective that the founders set up a restriction for the government, not a censorship imposed upon the people. 
For more than 150 years this was the standard in the United States, until the Supreme Court ruled in the 1947 case of Everson v. Board of Education and built a “high and impregnable” wall separating church and state.  This opinion has been used to silence prayer in schools, remove religious symbols from public places and much, much more.  Regardless of your religious or non-religious belief system the question must be asked, is it right that an atheist or agnostic body of people should have preferential treatment in seeking to silence religious sentiment in the public square?  Even the US Supreme Court doesn’t think so as evidenced by a subsequent opinion in their 1952 case Zorach v. Clauson:  

“The First Amendment… does not say that in every respect there shall be a separation of Church and State. Rather…there shall be no concert or union or dependency one on the other. That is the common sense of the matter. Otherwise the state and religion would be aliens to each other…
            Municipalities would not be permitted to render police or fire protection to religious groups… Prayers in our legislative halls; the appeals to the Almighty in the messages of the Chief Executive; the proclamation making Thanksgiving Day a holiday; “so help me God” in our Courtroom oaths—these and all other references to the Almighty that run through our laws, our public rituals, our ceremonies, would be flouting the First Amendment…
            When the state…cooperates with religious authorities by adjusting the schedule of public events…it follows the best of our traditions. For it then respects the religious nature of our people and accommodates the public service to their spiritual needs. To hold that it may not, would be to find in the Constitution a requirement that the government show a callous indifference to religious groups. That would be preferring those who believe in no religion over those who do believe…We cannot read into the Bill of Rights such a philosophy of hostility to religion.

America has a great tradition founded in religious principles.  It certainly has violated the rights of minority religions and the irreligious alike and in such cases the Constitution should be called upon to protect those rights.  However, over-zealous efforts often by well intentioned people must not allow the demon of persecution to enter our society nor suppress the ideas of open inquiry, discussion and debate.  Excluding ideas, whether religious or not suppress such honest inquiry and threatens to put our society back in the dark ages.  Remember, Madison carefully worded that first amendment as freedom of Religion, not freedom from it… Now I ask you the reader to decide carefully which interpretation best honors America’s tradition of freedom?