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December 01, 2008

Religious Freedom and Church-State Separation

by C. Welton Gaddy

Congratulations, Mr. President! At this moment you have more power than anyone else in the nation to encourage the American people to recommit themselves to the support and defense of the Constitution of the United States of America. As a person who has both spoken openly of your religious faith, as well as demonstrated your respect for people of different faiths and no faith, you are uniquely qualified to articulate, through word and deed, the proper relationship between institutions of religion and institutions of government. You know well that a direct relationship exists between the integrity and strength with which our nation protects our first freedom––religious liberty–– and the vitality and resolve with which the nation will protect a host of other rights and freedoms.

With respect and passion, I offer you four suggestions regarding actions that will immediately establish your strong support for religious freedom and its corollary, church-state separation.

Reject government-subsidized religion. As you begin your term, I encourage you to eliminate all of the executive orders issued by President George W. Bush authorizing federal funding for social services provided by pervasively sectarian institutions as ministries. Most people will applaud such action shortly after your inauguration, understanding that you are doing so because of your reverence for religion and faith––not because of any opposition to them––because of your commitment to protect religion from politicization, and because of your oath to protect and defend the Constitution.

Throughout the past eight years, I have testified before congressional hearings, met with social service organizations and with local religious congregations, as well as have conversations with recipients of faith-based funding, staff members in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, and critics of the faith-based initiatives. Without exception, the consensus is that the White House does not need and should not have a faith-based office. However, I have found that broad support exists for a White House office for community services. The history of President Bush’s faith-based initiative is rife with accounts of religious discrimination, lack of accountability, civil-rights violations, delivery of inferior services, and gross politicization for partisan purposes. Never were these characterizations verified for me more powerfully than during my involvement in the devastated post-Katrina Gulf Coast region.

If, for any reason, you choose to continue a faith-based initiative, I plead with you to require recipients of federal funding to first establish a separate 501(c)(3) organization for the receipt and spending of government funds. Such a requirement will at least provide a modest firewall of protection for both the government and the institution of religion and ensure that civil rights guarantees cannot be ignored in the name of faith. This requirement also will immediately distinguish you as a president who appreciates faith and the work of the religious community but refuses to entangle the institutions of religion and government and allow either to be used for the advancement of narrow sectarian or political goals.

Protect the religious freedom of public-school students. Public-school classrooms in this nation have become the primary battlefields on which conflict is raging between competing ideological views on church-state relations. Hypothetical situations aside, Mr. President, I can take you into classrooms where civics teachers were reprimanded for discussing the presidential campaign and prohibited from allowing students to discuss the election because of fear that a certain religion would not receive the exclusive attention it deserved. You can speak personally with science teachers who refuse to teach evolution because of their commitment to a particular religious tradition regarding the methodology of creation. The kind of education essential for good citizenship is being subverted by school teachers and administrators more interested in religious indoctrination than in basic education.

The following questions might be helpful in determining what is appropriate and legal related to religion in public schools: Is government money funding any religious activity? (Such a subsidy is unconstitutional.) If religion is part of the curriculum, are diverse beliefs or only one belief included? (The First Amendment prohibits public schools from endorsing one religion over other religions or religion over non-religion.) Do religious language and religious beliefs appear in the science curriculum? (Public schools exist to teach scientific theories and facts, not religious convictions and doctrines.) Do school employees keep their personal religious beliefs private? (Regardless of how well-meaning a teacher may be, no teacher should seek to persuade students regarding the rights and wrongs of a particular religion or religious belief.) Do students have the right to pray in a non-disruptive manner, individually or in groups? Are teachers and school administrators prohibited from imposing prayers on students? Are students made to feel uncomfortable on the basis of their identification with religion generally or one religious tradition specifically?

Challenge the display of religious scriptures or the construction of religious monuments in public spaces. The Supreme Court is reconsidering its historic position forbidding the posting of religious scriptures and erection of religious monuments in public places. Many constitutional scholars are predicting that the Supreme Court will dramatically modify current interpretations of the First Amendment’s ban on an establishment of religion. Such action would be disastrous for both religion and democracy.

You will face great pressure on this matter. Even though lower courts and the Supreme Court have ruled against a Christian cross constructed on federal land designated as “the Mojave National Preserve” in Southern California, Congress has more than once intervened to prohibit the removal of the religious symbol. Even more telling of the religious purpose at issue here, supporters of the public display of this religious symbol so important to Christians opposed a request for a dome-shaped Buddhist shrine to be constructed in the same area.

A more familiar problem is advocacy for posting the Ten Commandments or constructing monuments to them in public places. Those supporting the public display of the Ten Commandments ignore the variations in the different textual versions of the Ten Commandments and the relevance to Judaism or Christianity of a particular translation. Self-evident is the reality that nothing about the Ten Commandments reflects the affirmations of non-theistic religions. Some people continue to seek approval of these public displays, arguing for their importance because of their relationship to the history of legal documents. However, they ignore the fact that the Ten Commandments are affirmations of Holy Scripture, not law, and though deeply meaningful from some religious perspectives, not very consequential to the overall development of civil law.

Unfortunately, Constitution-based opposition to such practices is often demonized as the force of secularism attempting to ban religion––to develop a “naked public square.” Mr. President, I hope you know that scores of us in the religious community oppose this kind of government endorsement of religion––not because we do not value religion––but because we value religion enough to want to protect its sanctity and integrity from the political sphere.

When the government displays a religious text or permits the construction of a religious monument, the presumption is that government endorses that which it has permitted. But, according to the Constitution, the government is not to endorse religion. Testimony from numerous court cases illustrates how promotion of one religion conveys rejection or negation in relation to other religions and the elevation of that one religion over non-religion.

Use your bully pulpit to exemplify the proper use of religion in government and to emphasize the importance of religious liberty. Recent polling documents the alarming reality that most people in the United States no longer understand the meaning and importance of the guarantees of our Constitution’s First Amendment. In fact, a shocking number of citizens believe the Constitution established the United States as a “Christian nation” and support the government’s endorsement of their particular religious tradition.

From your recent exposure to every region of the country and all facets of our pluralistic society, you know that we are the most religiously diverse nation in the world. I am sure you realize that the religious freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment has been the best friend that religion has had in this land, and the same can be said for citizens of this nation who embrace no religion. It is not by accident that religion has thrived here right alongside the growth of a vibrant secular community without destructive conflict between religions or between religious people and non-religious people.

Religious freedom is often referred to as “our first freedom” and the foundation on which other freedoms were built. Many have spoken of religious freedom as our nation’s greatest contribution to the rest of the world. This freedom is now threatened.

Mr. President, as the most powerful political leader in the world, you can be immensely helpful in strengthening our nation’s commitment to religious freedom by giving this basic constitutional provision your attention, affirmation, and sup port. Your exemplary adherence to this freedom and consistent references to its importance would be an example for the nation and the world, and an important part of the legacy of your presidential leadership from day one.

C. Welton Gaddy

Reverend Dr. C. Welton Gaddy is the president of the Interfaith Alliance in Washington, D.C.