The religion clause of the First Amendment says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The First Amendment also protects freedom of speech, press, assembly and redress.
The religion clause has been interpreted over the years by scholars and the Supreme Court to mean that the state shall not interfere in the realm of religion nor shall religion interfere in governance by the state. Many scholars, including Thomas Jefferson, have called this the wall of separation between church and state.
THE CENTRAL Savannah River Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) has been formed to affirm the First Amendment. Our concerns center on public education about religious liberty, protection of religious diversity and freedom from theocratic interference in governance.
While there are some limits on the practice of religion, the freedom to practice one’s religion is one of the most fundamental rights of citizens of the United States. There are many religious communities in the CSRA: the more common Christian, both Protestants and Catholics; the less common Jewish and Muslim; but also Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Pagan, B’hai, Jain, agnostic, humanist and others.
The Constitution guarantees the individuals of all these religious affiliations, or indeed non-affiliated individuals, the right to practice religion as each sees fit within the confines of the law.
To protect religious freedom for all, education should include comparative religion so that voters understand the tenets of different belief systems, and how each belief system can be accommodated wisely within the confines of protecting individual liberty. The proposed education is not indoctrination into a specific religion, but an education about the general tenets of each religion, recognizing that within each religion there will be a number of sects that exhibit subtle differences from the common tenets.
Indeed, it is likely that individuals within those sects will exhibit subtle differences from the professed beliefs of that sect. All of these religious beliefs are protected by the First Amendment as long as the practices that they promote do not interfere with the rights of others.
Over the years, there have been attempts to use government resources to promote specific religious ideas. Most recently, efforts have been directed toward the teaching of creation science and Intelligent Design in public schools. These ideas have been proposed as alternatives to teaching the process of evolution. Both ideas originated as religious tenets and were dressed as science for presentation to the public. There is no scientific evidence for either.
While we believe that anyone has the right to believe those tenets if they choose to do so, government resources should not be used to promote either creation science or Intelligent Design because both are fundamentally religious. They certainly should not supplant the teaching of evolution, since there is considerable scientific evidence supporting that process.
Nor should government funds or property be used to support the posting of the Ten Commandments, because they are fundamentally religious in nature, dealing only cryptically with governance issues (commandments six through nine).
THE RELIGIOUS clause of the First Amendment also guarantees that the dominant religion will not bully minority religions into submission. Human history is replete with examples of such bullying. It is time to recognize that individuals have a right to their own religious views, and that neither the state nor a religious corporation has a right to impose religious beliefs on any individual.
The best way to guarantee both religious freedom and the neutrality of government is to keep religion and government completely separate. It is our job as the CSRA Chapter of AU to educate the public that complete separation of church and state is desirable, beneficial, possible and, indeed, imperative.
(The writer is president of the Central Savannah River Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.)