By Gene Rigelon - firstname.lastname@example.org
The emergence of religious freedom as an issue in the recent Republican nomination campaign has raised serious implications for the constitutionally guaranteed right to separation of church and state.
Despite a reasonable compromise on the coverage of contraceptives for Catholic institutions by the Obama administration, the Catholic bishops are pressing hard on their claim that the health care regulations are an infringement on their religious liberty. In a shameless attempt at pandering, nearly all the Republican candidates have attacked Obama as anti-religion. For example Mitt Romney declared, "I don't think we've seen in the history of this country the kind of attack on religious conscience, religious freedom and religious tolerance that we've seen under Barak Obama." Even Ron Paul chimed in: "The elitist secular collectivist hates religion."
This issue will not go away. If Romney wins, the Christian right will demand that we change the current interpretation of the First Amendment. There will certainly be legal assaults on how courts have interpreted the establishment clause in the First Amendment for the last 50 years.
History demonstrates that it was no accident that the freedoms of religion, of speech, of the press, of assembly and expressing grievances against the government were linked in the same amendment. They are essential to our basic liberties - the right to think as one chooses and to express that thought.
History tells us that there is nothing new in this debate. The first person in this country to define these freedoms was Roger Williams, best known for founding Providence, R.I., where he created the first government in the western world to guarantee full religious liberty.
Williams was no atheist or even secularist. He was a devout puritan minister who, despite living in a time when it was nearly universally believed that the authority to govern came from God, adamantly rejected that concept, insisting that government was entirely secular. He further reasoned that people where not subject to the government, rather that the government was subject to the people. This was the opening for the battle for separation of church and state, which was certainly revolutionary given the times. There is no doubt that Williams had significant influence on the founding fathers when they omitted from the constitution any mention of God and created a wholly secular government. They saw as Williams did that religious freedom is an essential part of freedom itself. That linkage is key to understanding why church-state separation and the First Amendment must be preserved at all costs if this country is to remain the moral leader of the free world. In a 1947 Supreme Court decision, Justice Hugo Black wrote, "This freedom was first and foremost in the forefathers minds; it was set forth in absolute terms and its strength is its rigidity."
Constitutional scholar Sam Ervin of North Carolina, who had previously criticized the courts for taking God out of schools, came to the following conclusion after studying the issue. "For God's sake, let us preserve for all Americans of all generations the right to bow their knees and lift their voices to their own God in their own way. We can do this by standing by the First Amendment as it has been written and interpreted."
After all this time, one would think that the issue is settled. Unfortunately, the argument has resurfaced with even greater intensity. The religious right, who still insist on posting prayers in public venues, are charging anti-religious bigotry on the part of those who support the strict separation called for in the Constitution. Note that Rick Santorum, the runner-up in the recent Republican nomination process, explicitly attacked the idea of separation of church and state saying that John Kennedy's call for an "America where separation of church and state is absolute" made him want to "throw up."
This is the most religiously diverse country in the world. Religion of all kinds flourish here because of, not in spite of, the First Amendment as it has been interpreted by the courts over and over again. You have the right to practice the religion of your choice. That is your right under the First Amendment, but you have no right to use taxpayer funds or government institutions to promote it. Why is that so difficult to understand?
It's past time for those who believe in freedom to listen to Williams and start defending historical truth and start defending freedom.
Gene Rigelon, 84, of Front Royal, is coordinator of the Shenandoah Area Secular Humanists, www.sash.wash.org