The following guest column was written by chapter president Frank Carl and appeared in the Augusta Chronicle for Religious Freedom Day.
Today, Jan. 16, is Religious Freedom Day. It is the day we celebrate the religion clauses of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
There are considerable differences in the interpretation of those words.
Religious Freedom Day was established by President George H.W. Bush in 1993 to commemorate the 1786 passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which was a ground-breaking piece of legislation authored by Thomas Jefferson that officially ended the state-established church in Virginia, and went on to guarantee religious liberty for all. Religious Freedom Day has been proclaimed annually by presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. And it’s a good thing, because a lot of Americans don’t understand what religious freedom actually means in this country.
There has been an unfortunate and apparently purposeful drive by some to misinform the American public that prayer has been banned from public schools. It has not. However, coerced, state-sponsored prayer has been ruled unconstitutional because it violates the First Amendment.
FIGURES OF AUTHORITY (teachers, principals or parents) cannot initiate prayer in any form in public schools, but students are free not only to pray in school but to form prayer groups as long as the activities do not disrupt normal activities of the school, and participation is completely voluntary.
Unfortunately, some seem to define religious freedom as “my freedom to force my religious activities on others.” An example of that kind of activity would be for a principal to recite his or her own Christian prayer or engage in a Bible reading over the intercom each morning, with little consideration for the Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, pagans and humanists in the student body. Indeed, when I was in school 50-plus years ago, that was the way it was done. The majority religion was observed in schools in spite of the First Amendment, which prohibits the establishment of any religion and guarantees each individual the freedom to exercise his or her own religious activities.
Indeed, the use of the King James translation of the Bible in the public schools in the last half of the 19th century led to the formation of the extensive Catholic school system in the United States. The King James version is the Protestant Bible.
The Founding Fathers recognized the potential for religion to be a divisive factor in the newly formed United States, given that different states had different state religions, so they decided to exclude religion from the federal government and to exclude government from religion, effectively separating the realms of religion and government.
WHILE WE HAVE had some problems adopting the ideas of our Founding Fathers, their vision has proved prophetic. Separating religion and government has been a successful experiment that has been emulated by many other countries in the world, particularly in Europe. We even extended the protections of the First Amendment to the states with the 14th Amendment.
At the same time, the inclusion of religion in governance has proved problematic – particularly in the Middle East and Africa, where governments have created unnecessarily restrictive religiously based laws that limit the freedom of their citizens. In some Middle Eastern countries, secular dictatorships have attempted to solve that problem by preventing the majority religion from exerting its religious will on the entire population of those countries. While those dictatorships have had other significant problems in terms of limiting freedoms, they effectively prevented political domination by the majority religion.
The take-home lesson here is that it is very difficult to attain religious freedom if the government (local, state or national) is using its coercive power to favor one religion over another. Religious freedom is enhanced by the separation of church and state.
(The writer is president of the Central Savannah River Chapter of the Americans United for Separation of Church and State. He lives in Augusta.)