What Religious Liberty Really Means

E-mail Father Jonathan

August 24, 2006

When we see special interest groups using the courts to destroy something as dear to us as religion, common sense tells us that something is not right. When we see small communities lose their cultural identity because city lawyers misuse good words like diversity and pluralism to mount a case for bigotry, common sense tells us that something is not right. When we instinctively shy away from expressing personal religious beliefs out of fear of violating contemporary society’s only universal virtue — tolerance — common sense tells us that something is not right.

This was the kind of gut-level response you gave to the article I posted on Monday’s blog about the religious liberty battle going on in the high school of the little town of Bridgeport, West Virginia, where some would like to see certain paintings of Jesus kept off the wall.

We have to keep in mind that while common sense is always good, sometimes it’s not enough. That’s the case with religious liberty law, the thorny litigation that discerns how to apply the U.S. Constitution to particular cases regarding public expression of belief.

Common sense — and a little history — tell us there should also be a certain and well-defined separation between church and state.

That’s why we need more than a gut to balance out these two competing interests; religious liberty and the neutrality of government. Once again, we need principles for decision-making.

Here are two sets of five. The first set we can call “anthropological” principles — they are based on who man is. The second set contains “constitutional” principles — they are based on the written law of the land. Keep in mind these are not complete textbook answers. They are my attempt to distill into a few words concepts about which other people have dedicated some very good books — which very few people have read.

Anthropological Principles:

• Human beings naturally seek the infinite, the transcendent, the supernatural.

Their expression of this search is what we call “religion." Every society has developed religious culture, including rites, symbols, ceremonies, liturgy, prayer, etc. Religion, then, is man’s response to God.

As social animals, religious expression, then, is natural to human beings, as it is our way of revealing an integral part of who we are and who we want to be.

Freedom of expression as enshrined in natural law (and our Constitution) assures our right to express this aspect of our humanity.

Attempts to relegate such expression to the “privacy” of the home, or even to private institutions, is to deny that religion is a natural and good element of culture.

Constitutional Principles:

The Constitution of the United States, aware of the “anthropological” arguments above, seeks to defend the freedom to practice religion. In no place does it suggest its elimination from public life.

The first amendment to the Constitution tries to achieve this by forbidding congress to enact law that would 1) establish one religion over another (as mother England had done) or 2) prohibit the free exercise thereof.

• Solid legal precedence (Lynch and Allegheny County , for example) has interpreted the “establishment” clause above to mean government must avoid endorsing or advancing over another any particular religious creed.

Public institutions (city halls, courts, schools, etc.) should not be forbidden to showcase religious symbols as expressions of culture. They must do this, however, in a way that communicates freedom to choose one’s own religion.

• The surest way to do this is through the message of pluralism — showing symbols of the various creeds represented in the community (the decision of the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals of February 16, 1999 reasons this point perfectly).

Some Conclusions:

The good people of Bridgeport, West Virginia are doing us all a favor. They are fighting for their own cultural and religious identity against people and organizations that have proven in the past to be bigger bigots than the theoretical bigots they hate so much.

The courts, if they act well, will also do us a favor. They will decide if the way of presenting the disputed painting of Jesus establishes, albeit incrementally, one religion over another.

I commend the ACLU and its comrades in arms for their work to defend a free and pluralistic society based on the “establishment clause” of the first amendment to our Constitution. At the same time, I would invite and challenge them to spend equal energy and resources to defend the second part of the same amendment, the prohibition of any law that would prohibit the free exercise of religion.

If we allow radicals to rid the public square of religion expression, we will not be a more tolerant, pluralistic, or diverse country. We will, in fact, be much like the regimes of past and present, who in the name of progress, have emptied culture of its richest forms only to fill it with ideologies of one kind or another.

If these are difficult times, it is not because there is too much religion. It is because there is not enough of it — the real kind — the kind that makes us free.

God bless, Father Jonathan

P.S. On Monday we’ll take a look at some of your responses to these two entries on religious liberty and this debate in West Virginia. If you keep your notes short and centered on one point, it’s easier for me to use them.

E-mail Father Jonathan

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