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Liberty and Justice For All

Ok, I get it. Democracy is the messy business of bringing people together to disagree. Often loudly. It’s a heck of a lot better than war and massacre. But how come we’re still arguing about one of our basic individual rights to liberty: Freedom of Religion? It seems that the news is bursting with people who seek to remove the separation between church and state. Shouldn’t we all agree, at least, that every inalienable right listed in the first ten amendments of the Bill of Rights represents an Ideal worth preserving at all costs? Our Bill of Rights, Thomas Jefferson said to James Madison in 1787, “is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth.”

It’s the very first clause of the first amendment in the Bill of Rights: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” Not much room for interpretation, folks. It’s an inalienable right to choose who to worship, or if at all, how much, and in what ways. No one gets a say in another person’s religious beliefs.

Now, it seems pretty plain to me why we wouldn’t want Religion meddling in government affairs. Before we Americans came along, western civilization knew little else but national establishment of church. Civil battles raged and millions were forced into religious observation throughout Europe. The church-states imposed doctrine and practice with all kinds of powerful tools–political favor and disfavor, taxation, torture, death. Lots of death. Besides, I’m an American. I don’t want anybody telling me what to believe or how to worship. Do you?

Yet for some reason a fair number of Americans don’t get it. In fact, they don’t value this particular right in the least. Or so it would seem. People express outrage over lack of prayer in schools, spend weeklong vigils protesting the forced removal of the Ten Commandments from an Alabama Court of Law, and denounce Michael Newdow, the atheist who seeks removal of the mention of God from the Pledge of Allegiance. Worst of all, there’s this issue of gay marriage and Bush’s proposed Constitutional Amendment grabbing the headlines these days. Notice how often the words “sacred,” “immoral,” and “Bible” are mentioned in the debate against civic homosexual matrimony?

Well-meaning people might protest. They love America, but for them prayer, the Ten Commandments, mention of God, and the religious marriage-rite represent the very moral underpinnings of life itself. For many Americans, this is an issue of God running this country, not religious doctrine. For them, God should not be separated from civil life.

Wake up folks, that’s Religion talking. And this Ideal, freedom from government sanctioned and enforced religion? It’s worth protecting. Those who believe that we should all live according to prescribed moral standards should simply remember the tradeoff. Without the right to freedom of religion, there’s no guarantee whose religious or moral standards reign.

We should separate God from civic life in every way. “Individual liberty is the essential characteristic of free government,” writes Constitutional historian Melvin Urofsky. Allow religious beliefs to take precedence over democratic liberties and we’re finished. Freedom of speech, Freedom of the Press, Right to Assemble, Habeas Corpus, Due Process–forget it. History, Thomas Jefferson reminds us, “furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government.”

It took nearly two hundred years for the Protestant majority to vote for a president of Catholic background. It took nearly 40 years after the Bill of Rights was adopted to extend religious liberty to Jews in Maryland and other states. Mormons were hounded west in the 1800s. Thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses were physically attacked and beaten in the 1940s because of their religious beliefs. Religious persecution in this country astounds the democratic among us. But it happens. And all we have in defense are seventeen words: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” Over time, those words serve to steer us back to justice and liberty for all.

People want their children to pray in school? Great. Just don’t allow them to establish religious practices in the public schools. If we do, someone else might subject our children or grandchildren to someone else’s practices at another time. People want references to God and the Bible inserted in national pledges, imprinted on national coins, erected in courts of law? Disgraceful. Jews believe Yahweh’s name should never be inscribed at all. Muslims call him Allah. Atheists don’t believe in “Him” at all. America is not a Christian country just because the majority of Americans choose to practice that religion. Some people wrongly think we should be, but that doesn’t make it so–thanks to the First Amendment

As for the President’s call for an amendment to the Constitution that defines marriage as an institution only allowed heterosexual couples, the issue remains the same. For some, maybe even the majority, homosexuality is considered “sinful” and “wrong.” As Sam Fleischacker reasons in the Op-Ed section of the San Francisco Chronicle, “Challenging the Institution: Civil unions for everyone,” such objections are grounded in religious belief or bigotry. If religious, “The law can and should preserve its neutrality on the question of what kind of erotic love finds favor in the eyes of God.” We must not allow religious belief to govern moral standards. If based on aversion to homosexuality alone, then “that is just bigotry; in no way different from the aversion to interracial marriage, which was also once written into law.” Certainly, law grounded in bigotry represents an injustice as great as law enforcing religious morality.

It’s time for Americans to step away from their religious beliefs long enough to see the forest for the trees. For some, God calls on them to pray in public, to act in “His” name, to make reference to “Him” whenever possible, to condemn homosexual marriage (though no religion would justify hatred or attack). Feel free. As Americans, it is each person’s birthright to exercise religion in their own way.

But please. As Americans who fly the flag of freedom, we must honor our Ideals. Jefferson knew what he was talking about when he said “Freedom of religion [is] the most inalienable and sacred of all human rights.” Without it, all others fall. If we fail to honor this our most precious of rights, the pledge of allegiance will include the word “God,” but we’ll forever find ourselves divisible, and we’ll have to strike out “liberty and justice for all” instead.