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Religious Freedom: What’s At Stake

I propose a radical move. The recent vote in the U.S. Congress on the Religious Freedom Amendment (RFA) should be a wake-up call that there are forces determined to make this a religious government. Despite the fact that every war occurring in the world today involves sectarian conflict, some elected leaders want to abolish our country’s tradition of nonreligious civil rule and allow government to promote religious beliefs in this country.

They claim this will assure “religious liberty,” but the text of the RFA–“the people’s right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage or traditions on public property, including schools, shall not be infringed” specifies religion in the public realm, which would create a partnership with government, instead of the distinction our founders intended.

For years religious conservatives have sought to discredit our American principle of separation of church and state–the solution our forefathers devised to protect religious freedom and prevent sectarian strife. The RFA would overturn that principle and subject us to a Holy War as religious factions fought to make their beliefs dominant. Aggressive religious majorities would insist on emphasizing their religious doctrine in all public places, polarizing society. Students would transfer to private religious schools to avoid this friction, and the RFA, in its statement that “The government shall not deny equal access to a benefit on account of religion” could mandate taxpayer support of these–something voters have decisively rejected under the present system.

Proponents point out that the proposed Amendment prohibits the establishment of any “official religion.” However, Article 124 of the Soviet Constitution provided the same, saying “the church in the U.S.S.R is separated from the state,”[1] but still the government was able to assume control of religion. The difference was that the Soviets had no independent judiciary to enforce their constitution. We have already seen a drive in our country to control Congress and the Supreme Court nomination process. The Christian Coalition very openly says the proposed amendment is needed to reverse years of court rulings.

In 1984, a visit to the Soviet Union showed the government supervising all religious matters, even to appointing clerics. Members of recognized churches were required to register with the state. Does anyone doubt that James Dobson, who recently chastised Congress for not legislating the religious edicts of his faith, would stop short of appropriating such power here if there were no Supreme Court to stop him?

Thomas Jefferson foresaw such problems when he warned against those who “had got a smell of union between church and state.”[2] The 224 to 203 vote in the House of Representatives favoring this Amendment demonstrates that most do not understand the simple reason for separation, pointed out by James Madison: “religion and government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”[3]

This was the Great American Idea: a neutral government–neither hindering nor advancing religion–protects the freedom of all. A neutral government in America, with its variety of religious beliefs, is a necessity to insure domestic tranquility.

And now that tranquility is being threatened by determined religionists. The recent House vote on the RFA fell only 62 votes short of the needed two-thirds majority to approve it as a Constitutional Amendment, so it will surely be back, especially if Republicans gain even more seats in Congress.

What does this drive toward religion in government mean to the future of our country?

We who value religious liberty know what’s at stake–nothing less than the freedom from religious tyranny our founders fought to attain, and which we have enjoyed for over 200 years. We see this freedom eroding now with the continual injection of religious “morals” into government legislation. We see it in the refusal to fund programs that make available contraceptives or abortion or equal rights for gays, because certain religions object. We see funding granted to faith-based social programs. We see innovative schemes advanced to obtain taxpayer funding for religious schools, and efforts to require prayer in the public ones.

We see the taxpayers funding religion indirectly by granting tax-exemptions to churches and religious organizations.

It’s time we let the religious political extremists who seek to create an American Theocracy know they also have something at stake in this venture. If they pursue efforts to threaten our religious liberty by passing a Religious Freedom Amendment, then we should threaten something they value–their source of funding.

We should first seek to repeal the tax-exempt status that has funded much of their drive for power. The nationwide interest in Colorado’s 1996 proposed initiative to disallow the property tax-exemption for churches and religious organizations shows that people are beginning to resent the burden of supporting an ever-increasing number of religious groups. The vicious opposition encountered from some religious organizations during that campaign illustrates the threat they perceive in such legislation. In 1991, a change in the tax-exempt status of nonprofit ministries by the state of California motivated Focus on the Family to move to Colorado to save an estimated $800,000 per year.[4]

If RFA-type legislation ever does pass, we should advocate changing to a system similar to Germany’s, where the government collects a 9 percent income tax from those in recognized religions. This is used to pay the salaries of ministers, priests and rabbis, construction costs of houses of worship, and also their social programs. Any not wishing to pay this tax must leave the religious institution in a formal court process. The advantage of this would be that each religion would pay its own way. Many would, of course, fail without taxpayer support.

All this would be a radical departure from established American tradition, to be sure, but then, so is the Religious Freedom Amendment.

We must make those intent on joining church and state understand exactly what is at stake for both sides.


[1] “Constitutional Government Today in Soviet Russia,” by Robert LeFevre, Exposition Press, NY, 1962, pg. 64

[2] Letter to Moses Robinson, 23 March 1801.

[3] Letter to E. Livingston, July 10, 1822.

[4] Letter from James C. Dobson, Ph.D., President of Focus on The Family, to Dear Friend, dtd May 1991.