Originally created 06/09/01

There's room for religion - and respect - in American public life



HOW DEEP is the distrust in Washington these days? So deep that a simple act of prayer can spark a fight.

When President George W. Bush invited visiting Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski to pray with him in the Oval Office last month, he was widely criticized for breaching the "wall of separation" between church and state.

Meanwhile, Attorney General John Ashcroft is under fire for holding daily devotional meetings at the Justice Department. Some critics suggest Ashcroft is violating the First Amendment.

Praying at the office might not have triggered much debate in earlier administrations. But Bush was elected with strong support from religious conservatives, and his first 100 days were marked by heated debates over abortion, charitable choice and other issues involving deeply held views about religion.

Many Americans - especially religious conservatives - are frustrated and angry over what they perceive as years of hostility toward religion in public life. They see nothing wrong with political leaders expressing their faith openly and freely.

Other Americans - including religious people of various faiths - fear the consequences of government entanglement with religion. They don't object to politicians with strong religious faith. In fact, polls show that Americans like their leaders to be religious. But they are wary of leaders who inject too much religion into politics.

Before this debate gets out of hand, we need to find ways to rebuild trust across religious and political lines. Let's start with the First Amendment.

Is it really a violation of "church-state separation" for the president to pray with a visiting dignitary? And is it unconstitutional for the attorney general to hold devotional meetings in his office prior to the start of the workday?

No, of course not.

The First Amendment may separate church from state, but it doesn't separate religion from public life. The government may not "establish" a particular religion or religion in general. But government officials may speak or act religiously as long as they don't coerce or require others to do so.

However, the constitutionality of these practices isn't the only issue. In consideration of what some have called the "spirit of the First Amendment," is it appropriate for the president to make his religious faith a prominent part of his official speeches and actions? And is it appropriate for the attorney general to organize religious meetings in the Justice Department? In short, while such actions may be constitutional, are they the right thing to do?

The answer depends entirely on how they're done.

Most Americans probably prefer political leaders who begin each day with Scripture reading and prayer. In a recent poll by Public Agenda, 49 percent of those surveyed said that politicians would more likely be honest and ethical if they were religious.

At the same time, however, the president is the president of all the people. When he acts on behalf of the nation, he should be careful to signal that America has no "official religion."

If the president is a person of faith, then it's natural and right that religious conviction and practice shape his life. But regularly mixing religious practices with official duties may suggest that we do have an official faith - the faith of the president.

In the autobiography published before Bush's election, he wrote: "I believe it is important to live my faith, not flaunt it." That's probably a good rule of thumb for him to follow now that he works in the Oval Office.

As for John Ashcroft, he's the nation's chief law-enforcement officer. It's vitally important that Americans see the attorney general as fair and impartial in his application of the law.

Here again, it's likely that most Americans would rather have an attorney general who prays each day than one who doesn't. And there's no reason why Ashcroft can't gather with others to read Scripture and pray before the workday begins.

But the attorney general (or any government supervisor) must be very careful not to impose religion on his employees. That's why the guidelines on religious freedom in the workplace issued under the last administration state that supervisors may invite employees to religious meetings but must be careful not to pressure them in any way to attend.

Ashcroft's meetings appear to be entirely voluntary. He's been quoted as saying that it's against his religion to impose his religion. There's no evidence that Justice Department employees feel pressured to attend nor any indication that attendance affects individual standing within the department.

Nevertheless, it might help to dispel any appearance of favoritism based on religion if the attorney general let others organize and lead the meetings.

With a newly Democratic Senate and a closely divided House, the president and attorney general must reduce distrust and division if they hope to advance their agenda for the nation. That's why it's in their best interests to signal a strong commitment to fairness and religious freedom, even as they remain true to their deep religious convictions.

It would also serve the nation well if critics of the administration would refrain from labeling every public expression of faith by the president and attorney general as an assault on the First Amendment.

There's no religious consensus in this country. But surely we can reach a civic consensus on the importance of treating one another with civility and respect.

(Editor's note: Charles Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center in New York.)