Letters show commitment to religious liberty in U.S.

Sunday, September 5, 1999

Judging from the mail I receive, Americans may differ deeply about religion, but most share a strong and abiding commitment to religious liberty.

A case in point was the flood of letters that followed a recent column about Wiccan celebrations on Army bases. Not surprising were the scores of letters from Wiccans thanking me for standing up for their rights.

“We appreciate the fact that you pointed out that Wiccans aren't seeking special treatment, but equal treatment under the First Amendment,” wrote three Wiccan leaders.

But I was taken aback by the number of letters from Christians who supported the right of Wiccans to be treated fairly by government officials.

“While it is not a path I would choose for myself,” wrote one reader, “I am thrilled to hear that at least some Christians are sticking up for the right of pagans to practice their chosen faith. As members of a minority faith (Baptist) in a predominantly Mormon state (Utah), we've become much more sensitive to religious liberty issues. It may not be the easiest course for Christians to support the right of pagans to practice their faith, but it is the only one which ensures that we will be allowed the same liberty to practice ours.”

On almost every issue, the majority of letter-writers supports attempts to find common ground by way of the First Amendment. That's even true in the case of the creation/evolution debate — surely one of the most emotionally charged issues in public schools today. After I wrote a column outlining ways for schools to “teach the controversy,” I braced for a deluge of critical mail from both sides.

Once again, however, the number of positive letters endorsing common-ground proposals took me by surprise. Most people seem to agree that schools should teach the prevailing scientific theories while at the same time finding room in the curriculum for a variety of ways to understand the universe. Most of the letters echoed the reader who wrote: “Thanks for attempting to bring some understanding to the current creation/evolution debate.”

Of course, not all readers think that finding common ground is a good idea. Some see religion as dangerous. One letter put it this way: “Science unites! Religion divides! No scientist ever killed another because they held differing beliefs.”

On the other side, there are those who view most scientists not only as dangerous, but also as completely wrong.

“Since all true science verifies creation as a fact and evolution as a good fairy story,” wrote one reader, “no compromise is needed.”

A column last month about the Workplace Religious Freedom Act also generated a few hostile letters, mostly taking aim at religion. One reader saw the act as “just another way for religion and the government” to take freedom away from “those who do not accept the Christian superstition.”

But most letter-writers expressed strong support for protecting religious liberty in the workplace, and several had personal stories to tell. An Orthodox Jew described how his employer has allowed him switch hours from one day to another so that he can leave work when the Sabbath starts early during the winter months.

“I was surprised and alarmed to learn from your article that private employers are not necessarily required to extend this courtesy,” he wrote.

Another reader explained: “Being a Seventh Day Adventist, religious freedom is very important to me. … As a U.S. Postal rural mail carrier, I've had to put my job on the line for my Sabbath convictions.”

With few exceptions, most of the mail I get each day contains encouraging signs that many Americans take the First Amendment seriously. And it also indicates that most care deeply about protecting religious liberty — not just for themselves, but for people of all faiths or none. This may not be a scientific sampling of public opinion, but it is a heartening reminder that the American experiment in religious freedom is alive and well.