E-mail Father Jonathan

August 28, 2006

Today we continue our discussion on religious liberty, in particular the display of religious symbols in public institutions.

We have been examining the case of the high school in Bridgeport, West Virginia where the ACLU is facing off with the local school board to require the removal of a painting of Jesus.

This is the third and final posting on the current topic, and today I let you take the lead. (Click here for Part I and Part II).

How I wish I could respond to each one of your messages! I read them and I appreciate every one.

God bless, Father Jonathan

P.S. On Monday, I suggested we begin to bring third-party expert opinion into our discussions on this blog. You weren’t so enthused. Many said you were fed-up with “experts” dictating how things ought to be. So for now, it will just be us. I’ll give pride of place, nevertheless, to the messages I receive from people with first-hand information about the given topic. You’ll see in today’s messages we have opinion from people from the area of Bridgeport, for example. These are real experts, I would say!

Father Jonathan,

As for the comments of Mr. Andrew Schneider, executive director of the WV ACLU, I suggest that we are not a "small group of 'rabble-rousers' that want only to live with people who live as we do," as he says. We are people that are free to choose not to live as HE does.

Mr. Schneider's says 'the others' should attend private or parochial school.

Give us back our tax dollars or school vouchers. Then, he can enjoy the public schools with the one student and substitute teacher HE represents.

I'm proud that the Harrison Co. School Board has taken a stand for religious expression.

— Susie (Huttonsville, WV)

RESPONSE: Susie, sounds like you are passionate about what’s happening in your local area, and you should be. After all, you and your children are the ones who will be affected by the court’s decision. I hope the conversation on this blog will encourage you to keep getting involved and at the same time understand more fully the position of those who disagree with you.

Hello Father,

Though you do make some good points, I was somewhat surprised at your obvious stereotypes mentioned at the bottom of your article. You say our society is worse off because we have less religion? Are you aware that you're implying that people who aren't religious aren't good people, or are somehow contributing to the decline of our society? As an agnostic, I believe in a God, but I think the Christians, Jews, and Muslims are DEAD WRONG.

I'm a caring loving person who helps people all of the time. I always donate money to causes and I do believe in something greater than myself. Yet, I'm somehow contributing to the decline of society because I don't buy into your hokey religion? I'll tell you what is contributing to the decline of society — religious fundamentalists trying to control whether someone can watch porn or not, whether someone can go to a strip club or not, whether I can watch what television shows or movies I want, or listen to the music that I want to. They want to control the lives of gay people, they want to strip the right to choose away from a woman, they want to ban any form of euthanasia (such as Terry Schiavo).

So, I'm sorry Father, but if you think that removing religious symbols from public places is dictatorial, take a look at your own crowd of religious psychos because if they got a hold of this country, we'd turn into the Christian Iran. Religious fundamentalism, Father, is the biggest threat abroad as well as the biggest threat to freedom here at home. I do agree Christianity is a great thing, but a small group of psychos has hijacked it and the good Christians need to take it back. Keep religion in the private places — the fundamentalists have poisoned it.

Respectfully,

— D

RESPONSE: D, I’m sorry if I was not clear and you took offense. I would like to tell you why this country would never turn into a "Christian Iran." To the degree any nation follows the teachings of Christianity, it will promote religious freedom and respect for the dignity of every human being. Individual Christians often mess up, and sometimes even do so in the name of religion, but when we do, it is clear we are not acting as good Christians. The teachings of Jesus, in this respect, are crystal clear. Does that make sense?

One last point is that tolerance, in my opinion, does not mean avoiding moral judgments. If I believe the pornography industry — to use your example — is an offense to women and I speak out and work against it, that is not intolerant of me. If, on the other hand, I malign, disrespect, or somehow injure you because you believe differently, I am certainly in the wrong.

Father Jonathan,

Your statement that "religion is man's response to God" is flawed in a fundamental way. There is ZERO evidence that there is a God. ZERO! Religion is man's response to death. Fear of death has led man to dream up some kind of God in almost every culture. Pope John's body is decaying as we speak, as is Mother Theresa's and Saint Francis Of Assisi and they will never be seen or heard from again. The same is true of every human who has ever lived or will ever live. Deep in everyone's being, they all know this. They hope against hope that their life will go on after death, but they really know that it isn't going to happen.

Fighting about whether Jesus' picture should or should not be hung somewhere is such a waste of time and effort. Nobody, deep down, really believes any of this and people are just hedging their bets in case it might be true. The sad part is that all this energy to believe could be better spent on helping and loving each other in the brief time we have while we are alive.

— R.B.

RESPONSE: Where do I start? First let me say some people actually do believe deep down in life after death, as you probably know deep down. Could we all be wrong? Yep. But life only works if we are willing to trust sources we deem trustworthy. My experience in the field tells me most people believe in God because they have experienced his presence in a personal way, and in a way they cannot deny. This, for us, is a trustworthy source. I don’t doubt that others do as you say and hedge their bets "just in case," and by golly, that’s not such a bad idea either. But yes, I agree, believers and non-believers should spend our energy helping and loving each other in the brief time we have while we are alive. Thanks for your note, R.B.

Father Jonathan,

A truly pluralistic society would allow for the non-religious. The government has no business at all displaying religious symbols in any forum, such as school, courthouse, etc. Would you be supportive of "religious freedom" if it involved pictures of Buddha in the hallways of our schools, or quotes from the Koran in our courthouses? The term "religious freedom" is misused to mask the efforts of conservative Christians to impose their beliefs on the rest of us. I welcome a society filled with religious symbols, as long as not a single penny of my tax dollars is used to support it. This is a practical impossibility with any governmental institution.

— Michael

RESPONSE: Michael, yes, society should certainly allow for the non-religious. Your premise, though, suggests that a non-religious person is offended by symbols of those who are religious. The next e-mail below and my response touches on your concerns.

Father Jonathan,

Bridgeport is a very interesting town that has been going through a transition over the past 20 years. It has been changing from a very labor-based community (coal, steel, timber, etc.) to a technology and services-based community. The biggest example of this change is the FBI national fingerprint facility that was moved from Washington, D.C. to the Bridgeport, WV area. Along with this facility came hundreds of people from the original D.C. facility. This changing demographic and sense of community may be adding to this struggle.

My wife grew up in Bridgeport and we were married there in 1986. The painting of Jesus was there when she was in high school and was never a problem to her or her classmates, whatever their faith (or lack thereof). Our constitution does not guarantee us freedom "from" religion but freedom "of" religion. This includes both our private and public lives.

If there is a public school teacher of Orthodox Jewish, Muslim, or Mennonite faith, are they forbidden from wearing their head coverings or other symbols of their faith?

David S. (Moundsville, WV)

RESPONSE: David, I post your message because I believe you are on to something very important. Religious expression is part of culture, and culture is always local. I believe the appropriateness of displays of religious symbols in public institutions varies according to the cultural identity in which the institution in question resides. It would have been ridiculous to ask the Bridgeport community 30 years ago to display symbols of religions that were in no way represented in the community at the time. If today there is a considerable percentage of followers of another religion and they have interest in displaying a representative symbol, it should be welcomed. Remember, the point here is government institutions should provide an environment conducive to religious liberty.

Father Jonathan,

First, my bias, I am a non-Christian, and I disagree with the politics of Christian churches on many things. I am, however a huge fan of yours. In your writings, I find the best of what Christians have to offer. It gives me hope.

In response to this debate, I must make one point on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:

This amendment was created, on the religious aspect, to:

• Prevent a (an elected) theocracy, as our Founding Fathers knew what kind of society a theocracy produces, as do we looking to the Middle East.

• Prevent the government from interfering with anyone’s practice of his or her own religion.

The First Amendment was never meant to eradicate all public expressions of religion. The public display, even in a school, of religious symbols does not promote a theocracy, except in the wildest of slippery slope arguments. Nor does it prevent anyone from practicing his or her own religion.

Besides, when all religious expression is eradicated from the public view, does not the officially- sanctioned religion become atheism?

— Christopher L.

RESPONSE: Christopher, it doesn’t sound like you are biased at all. Thanks a lot for your note and kind words.

Fr. Jonathan,

Your article quotes someone as saying "schools are considered the most sensitive location because with children, personal matters like religion are to be left to parents, not government." Hmmm....funny how sex education is not such a personal matter in that it is left to the parents, along with teachings on same-sex unions, etc. It strikes me that the government dictates to parents what "personal matters" are or are not.

— Judy (Ohio)

RESPONSE: Judy, yes, I think we have to be very attentive to what gets into the curriculum in our public schools. The only way to do this is for parents to get involved. In the meantime, my suggestion is for parents to sit down with their kids and discuss with them what they are learning at school and take advantage of the time to transmit the values in which they believe.

Good afternoon,

I read your blog with interest. I find your challenge to the ACLU even more interesting, as it has repeatedly worked with people whose religious rights were being denied. Here are some examples:

• A Baptist Church forbidden to use a public park for baptisms was helped by the ACLU in order to proceed as other organizations were allowed to use the park for any reason.

• Jewish children in Alabama violently harassed by their schoolmates to become 'born-again' were helped by the ACLU, so they could remain unbothered when wearing a Star of David.

• A high school student forbidden from posting scripture in the yearbook was helped by the ACLU.

There are more and all easily accessed on the ACLU website.

In the interest of fairness, could you please pose the same challenge to the Rutherford Institute to prevent religious intrusion into the law?

Sincerely,

— Jennifer

RESPONSE: In the spirit of fairness, Jennifer, I am posting your e-mail. I think my point was clear — the ACLU has done some good work, as you point out, but as an organization they are clearly determined to force religion out of the public eye. Religion that is left at home, or even left at the church doors, is religion in crisis because one’s relationship with God cannot be departmentalized. It is a way of life. Religion expression, of course, should be prudent and respectful of others.

Father Jonathan,

There you go again, having to resort to logic and reason. Great article.

— Sean M. (Valley Center, CA)

RESPONSE: Look below at what this other friend of mine thinks…

Father Jonathan,

How absolutely bored I am when I read what you write. Would you please start using your head, and giving some color to what you address?

Father Jonathan,

B.S. Nowhere in our Constitution does it even hint of separation of church and state. Our Founding Fathers did not want a specified state religion. Just where does this lie of separation of church and state come from? I suspect liberals make it up.

— Melbourne

RESPONSE: You are right, Melbourne. The phrase is not found in the Constitution; Thomas Jefferson coined it in his letter to the Danbury Baptist Association. Two days after he wrote it, Jefferson attended Sunday worship services at the Capitol, on the floor of the House of Representatives. As you can see, concepts change with time. When I suggested in my last posting that there should be a certain and well-defined separation of church and state, I am saying that both have separate roles. It does not mean politicians should leave their faith at home. It does not mean the government should abolish religion from its institutions. It does mean, the government should not run the church, or establish its own.

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