County’s ‘approved religions’ for official prayer: dangerous and wrong

Sunday, August 10, 2003

Only “approved religions” get to offer an invocation before the Board of Supervisors in Chesterfield County, Va. Pray to one God and you’re in; pray to many Gods and you’re off the list.

That whirling sound you hear is Thomas Jefferson and James Madison spinning in their graves.

It was Jefferson, you will recall, who wrote the law that disestablished religion in Virginia more than 200 years ago. And it was Madison who got it passed. Their lofty aim? End the entanglement of church and state, a leading cause of repression and coercion throughout human history.

Officials in Chesterfield County still don’t get it. So a few weeks ago a priestess of the Wiccan religion took them to court, challenging the “prayer policy” as a violation of religious freedom. It seems that the Chesterfield Board of Supervisors has decreed that “Judeo-Christian” prayers are constitutional – apparently because they are part of something called “American civil religion.” And since they worship one God, Muslims have been added to the list. Other faiths with deities that don’t pass muster – including Wiccans, Hindus and Buddhists – need not apply.

This absurd fight over “official prayers” would be laughable if it weren’t so dangerous. As Jefferson and Madison knew well, once you give government the power to decide which religions are favored and which are not, conflict is inevitable.

Is Chesterfield County an isolated example? Or are growing numbers of Americans willing to breach the “wall of separation” built by Jefferson and Madison, first in Virginia and later in the establishment clause of the First Amendment?

For an answer, look at the results of the 2003 survey of Americans’ attitudes toward the First Amendment, conducted by the First Amendment Center in collaboration with American Journalism Review. Two key findings suggest that a majority of Americans appear ready to lower the wall dramatically – and then poke holes in what remains:

  • Fully 62% of those surveyed agree that government officials should be allowed to post the Ten Commandments inside government buildings.
  • Sixty percent favor government funding for religious institutions to help them run drug-abuse programs, even if religious messages are included as part of the program.

These numbers add up to good news for proponents of posting the Ten Commandments in government buildings and for those who support the Bush administration’s faith-based initiatives.

But is the survey bad news for religious freedom?

The answer is yes, if you accept Jefferson’s conviction (found in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom) that “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical.” This means that state promotion or funding of religion is, by definition, a violation of religious liberty.

If the survey is any indication, Jeffersonians are hard to find these days. It would appear that a growing number of Americans fail to see “no establishment” as a core principle of religious freedom.

Part of the problem may be that “separation of church and state” has gotten a bad name. Endless lawsuits filed by the “freedom from religion” folks in the name of the First Amendment strike many people as aimed at making America’s public square a religion-free zone.

Jefferson and Madison, however, didn’t intend for “separation” to keep religion out of politics or public life. On the contrary, they strongly supported a public square where all people “shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain their own opinions in matters of religion.” What they sought to prevent was state involvement in religion.

Here’s a prediction. Once government starts to promote or fund religions many Americans don’t like, support for “separation” will go way up.

The day a court orders Chesterfield County to add a Wiccan priestess to the prayer list will be the last day of prayer at a board meeting. The moment tax dollars are sent to a drug-abuse program run by an unpopular religious group, public outcry will push Congress to put more safeguards on “charitable choice” initiatives. And when the Ten Commandments in the courthouse are surrounded by other scriptures or statements from humanists and atheists, we’ll hear a clamor to get the state out of the religion business.

The way to avoid these conflicts is to stop using government to favor one religion over others – and to insist that the government remain neutral toward all religions. History tells us that state religion in any form violates conscience, endangers religion, and provokes conflict.

Madison knew his history. That’s why when the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom finally passed in 1786, he famously wrote to Jefferson: “I flatter myself [that we] have in this Country extinguished for ever the ambitious hope of making laws for the human mind.”

Unfortunately, many Americans suffer from historical amnesia. Madison spoke much too soon.

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