Filed Under:  National, News

To believe or not to believe

17th December 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Marjorie R. Esman
Contributing Columnist

Believing that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their Legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.
– Thomas Jefferson in a Letter to the Danbury Baptists in 1802

The holiday season is a time when the emphasis is on shopping, decorating your home and spending time with family. But for the ACLU the holiday season brings into focus the issue of government infringement on religious rights. In recent years some have declared that the ACLU is leading a so-called war on Christmas. This simply isn’t true. Very often, our work is in support of people’s rights to celebrate Christmas. Last year the ACLU of Texas filed a brief in support of students in Plano who wanted to include Christmas messages in their holiday gift bags. In Massachusetts, The ACLU intervened on behalf of a group of students who were suspended for distributing candy canes and a religious message in school. The ACLU succeeded in having the suspensions revoked and filed a friend-of-the-court brief in a lawsuit brought on behalf of the students against the school district. The ACLU of Rhode Island once interceded on behalf of an interdenominational group of carolers who were told they could not sing Christmas carols on Christmas Eve to inmates at the women’s prison . The ACLU has always supported everyone’s right to celebrate Christmas in churches, at home and with family and friends, but government must not promote religious practices or beliefs, because doing so would endorse one religion over others. That’s why erecting religious Christmas displays on government property is prohibited, yet it’s a recurring holiday theme.

The First Amendment states very clearly that: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This is why in the United States we don’t have a national religion. It also is why the government is prohibited from showing preference for one religion over another. Put another way, a person’s religious rights should not be subject to government or political process. “To believe or not to believe” is the question; and the government shouldn’t have anything to do with providing an answer.

While the holiday season naturally draws attention to this issue, the reality is that religious rights and the government intersect often, and not only at Christmas. Earlier this year, the ACLU of Louisiana obtained an injunction on behalf of Kelsey McCauley, who was arrested while ministering with an evangelical group on Bourbon Street. Arresting officers cited a city ordinance that, among other things, specifically “prohibits any person or group to disseminate any social, political or religious materials between the hours of sunset and sunrise.” This was a direct violation of religious freedom, and the ACLU was able to restore Ms. McCauley’s right to preach in public. The City of New Orleans is now working on revisions to the law so it will comply with the Constitution.’

To protect the religious rights of everyone, public schools are prohibited from acknowledging or teaching any particular religion. Teachers may not lead students in prayer or conduct religious ceremonies. In addition, schools have the responsibility to protect students from being coerced to accept religious or anti-religious beliefs. Schools may, of course, teach about religion as part of a larger curriculum, but they may not use those lessons to advance a particular religious viewpoint.

At the same time, schools must be respectful of students’ religious beliefs. Last year in Texas, the ACLU stood in opposition to a school district’s policy prohibiting students from wearing visible rosaries, crosses and other articles of faith. In 2009, the ACLU of Louisiana intervened on behalf of Curtis Harjo, a Native American Kindergarten student who was being pressured to cut his hair, which he wore long as part of his tribe’s religious custom. The fact is that students have the right to pray, practice and display their religion individually and in groups, if they choose. Even in the classroom, if given a choice for an assignment, students can choose a religious one. Students do not have the right to impose their religious views on others – and while that is what the law requires, it’s also a matter of simple respect.

It seems reasonable that Thomas Jefferson’s words about “building a wall of separation between Church and State” were motivated by the religious persecution that brought many here in the first place. He and other framers of the Constitution understood that while government can control what people do, it cannot control what people believe. And, though his words are not found in the U.S. Constitution, they have defined the issue for more than two centuries. They are the reason that this country has the greatest diversity of religious beliefs and practices in the world. The Constitution decrees that religion must be a private matter for the individual, the family, and the institutions of private choice. At the end of the day…what’s government got to do with it?

This article was originally published in the December 17, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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