Freedom of (and from) Religion in America

For years Americans have debated the issue of church-state separation. The debate has become hotter in recent years as many political minorities, especially the gay community have begun to push back against the hegemony Christians have enjoyed almost since the founding of the nation. The playing field is being leveled, and Christians don’t like it one bit. There is much kicking and screaming among Christians right now because they feel they’re being persecuted. In some cases they’re right. In others, it’s just a matter of them being uncomfortable with being placed on equal footing with those they disagree with.

Part of the problem is that many, perhaps most, Christians feel they have a mandate to define our culture’s sense of morality. If the Bible says it’s wrong, then Christians tend to think it should be wrong for everyone, not just them. Gay marriage is the most obvious issue along these lines. Recent events in Indiana and Arkansas bear this out. Christians have become almost frantic to find ways to prevent gay marriage from becoming legal at the federal level. Why? Because according to the Christian doctrine gay relationships are an “abomination.” Do Christians in fact have the constitutional right to have their doctrine codified into law? Are we in fact a “Christian nation?” True enough, the majority of the population is Christian. But the majority of the population is also white. Are we a white nation? No. The majority of the population is female. Are we a female nation? No. The Founders in their wisdom tried to make certain no one group could ever dominate the rest of the populace.

Let’s take a quick look at what the Constitution says about religion. First, the one we all know – the portion of the First Amendment relevant to this discussion:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

Note that the Constitution makes no specific reference to Christianity. It merely refers to “religion.” It says two things here. First, that the US shall have no established (official) religion. Secondly, it says that government shall not interfere with the practice of one’s religion. Again, no specific reference is made to Christianity. From that one can only conclude that the Founders referred to all religions and not just Christianity. All religions have equal standing in the USA.

There is one other reference to religion in the Constitution, found in Article VI. The relevant portion of Article VI states the following:

“The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

This is quite important. It makes it clear that religious faith is irrelevant to public service. The Founders, while most were Christian or at least believed in a Higher Power, recognized that true religious freedom was attainable only if government remained neutral where religion is concerned. An oath to support the Constitution is required. An oath to support the Bible (or Qur’an or Torah) is neither required or allowed.

Simply put, the “Wall of Separation” between church and state is not only real but one of the cornerstones of American freedom. We are free to believe as we see fit and to practice those beliefs as long as we do not infringe upon the rights of others. But humans are imperfect, and unfortunately so is our system. Sometimes our rights as Americans come into conflict. This again became obvious when Indiana passed its version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

It was believed by many that the law would allow legal discrimination against gays. As a result the gay community, lead principally by Star Trek legend George Takei, launched a huge and mostly successful campaign against the law. Indiana’s Governor Pence eventually sent the law back to the state legislature for “clarification” so that it was understood the law did not allow businesses to discriminate against customers solely because of their sexual orientation. Arkansas passed a similar law and also bowed to the pressure and sent the law back to its legislature. In Arizona, similar legislation was vetoed by Governor Brewer in 2014.

But this whole thing begs the question, “Can a business owner be forced to violate his/her religious beliefs?”There have been several high-profile cases lately, and in many the business owner lost. The most well-known case as of this writing is a baker in Colorado who refused to bake a cake for a gay wedding because it would conflict with his religious beliefs. Now folks, the gay couple could have and should have just gone to another baker. Were I them it’s what I’d have done. But instead the couple chose to make an example of the baker and pretty much destroyed his business. In the moral sense, that’s just plain wrong.

But in the legal sense, the couple was absolutely right. They didn’t ask the baker to do anything he didn’t do every day in his business. Bakers bake wedding cakes. Lots of them. It would have been expressly illegal for the baker to refuse to bake a cake for an interracial wedding or whatever other kind of wedding. And gays deserve equal protection under the law like everyone else. Since it was the baker who was frankly engaging in an act of bigotry, the courts ruled against him.

Christian businesses don’t always lose these battles. In another high-profile case, Hobby Lobby won a religious exemption so that their employee insurance under Obamacare would not pay for morning-after pills. Hobby Lobby contended that their pro-life beliefs would be violated if they had to provide it. They won the fight, and I say more power to them. There is a difference between this case and the Colorado baker. Hobby Lobby was not engaging in any sort of discrimination. They were not denying their employees access to the drug. They simply refused to pay for it.

In all of these cases, it is the constitutionality of the issue that must be adjudicated. The courts have to decide who if anyone has taken an action that violates the constitutional rights of others. And if a violation has taken place, then the courts must effect a remedy for the situation.

So where does this leave Atheists?

The question is, “Does freedom of religion include freedom from religion?” I believe that by definition, “Of” must include “From” in this case. Atheism certainly is not a religion though some Atheist groups have been granted privileges similar to those allowed for religious groups. The thing is, Atheism does in fact espouse a well-defined belief where God is concerned: They believe there is no credible evidence to prove He exists. Therefore, they do not believe in Him. Like it or not that belief must be respected just like all other beliefs where deities are concerned. So yes, freedom of religion must include freedom from religion for those who choose it.

But what about when some Atheist group like the Freedom from Religion Foundation decides to sue some little town in the Midwest because they have a Nativity scene at Christmas on city property? Folks, can’t we all just get along? Who’s being hurt by the display? No one. Who’s rights are violated by the display? No one’s. And please note here that most Atheists are not like the busybodies at FFRF. Most Atheists just want to live nice quiet lives like the rest of us.

By the same token, there are Christians who also stir the soup. A prime example is Alabama State Justice Roy Moore. The following is from a Wikipedia page about Moore and the controversy he created:

Roy Stewart Moore (born February 11, 1947) is an American judge, Republican politician, and the current Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. In 2003, during Moore’s first term as Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, he refused to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments (which he had commissioned) from the Alabama Judicial Building despite orders to do so from a federal judge. On November 13, 2003, the Alabama Court of the Judiciary unanimously removed Moore from his post as Chief Justice.

In the years preceding his first election to the state Supreme Court, Moore successfully resisted attempts to have a display of the Ten Commandments removed from the courtroom. The controversy around Moore generated national attention. Moore’s supporters regard his stand as a defense of “judicial rights” and the Constitution of Alabama. Moore contended that federal judges who ruled against his actions consider “obedience of a court order superior to all other concerns, even the suppression of belief in the sovereignty of God.”

On November 6, 2012, Moore won election back to the office of Alabama Chief Justice, defeating replacement Democratic candidate Bob Vance.

Justice Moore obviously feels a need to defy those he perceives as trying to silence the Christian voice. He’s proud of his Christian faith and wants to proclaim it from the roof top of the federal building in Montgomery. That’s all well and good, except that his Ten Commandments monument violated state and federal law. And the Bible does say something about obeying the laws of the land. It’s a matter of degree. Placing a huge religious monument on government property in violation of the law is a bit more serious than the aforementioned Nativity scene.

And besides all that, the Book of Matthew makes it rather plain in regards to public displays of faith:
Matthew Chapter 6, verses 1-6…

  1. Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.
  2. Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
  3. But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth:
  4. That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.
  5. And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
  6. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

So maybe Old Roy should quiet things down a bit. And don’t get me started on Tim Tebow. What a show-boating phoney.

When you get down to it, the diverse nature of America’s cultural landscape will always have the potential for conflict. For that reason we must all learn to respect each others’ beliefs even (perhaps especially) when we disagree. Atheists have no reason to complain about a Nativity scene on city property. Christians are not hurt by gay marriage and should silence their objections. Gays should honor the religious beliefs of those who do not wish to bake cakes or arrange flowers for their weddings. We need not inflict our beliefs on our neighbors, nor should we tolerate such behavior from others. People, stop bullying each other and just learn to get along. It’s so simple, and America would be a better, more peaceful nation because of it. Live and let live.