Columns » Warwick Sabin

You gotta believe

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When it comes to understanding the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, it’s tempting to compare the Arkansas legislature to a bunch of uninformed high school students, but that might be too generous. Last Friday, the Arkansas House voted down a resolution that would have affirmed the body’s support of “the principle of separation of church and state.” The legislation also highlighted language in the state constitution that arguably goes even further, mandating that “no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment, denomination or mode of worship above any other.” Less than three weeks earlier, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation released a survey that revealed over one-third of U.S. high school students believe newspapers should get “government approval” of articles before publication. The report included other evidence demonstrating that American young people do not know or appreciate the free speech protections enshrined in the First Amendment. It is disturbing enough to discover that the next generation is not being educated about one of the most basic guarantees of liberty in our society. But it is a more serious matter when lawmakers repudiate language contained in the very documents from which their power to make laws is derived. They certainly cannot claim ignorance, and indeed, they don’t even try. “Separation of church and state means different things to different people,” state Rep. Mark Martin told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, in explaining his opposition to the resolution. It’s a sentence that brings to mind the famous line from “Animal Farm,” the George Orwell novel about totalitarianism: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Because the “difference” Martin refers to is actually a rejection of the separation itself, meaning he doesn’t see anything wrong with injecting religion into the legislative process. His position is consistent with a line adopted by many social conservatives these days, who say that the First Amendment “only” prohibits Congress from making a law that would establish a religion or prohibit the free exercise of religious beliefs. Therefore, they say, as long as there is no state-sponsored church or infringements on religious practices, governments can pass all kinds of religiously-inspired legislation. Except that to affirm certain religious principles in law is to implicitly reject others. And it is unlikely that Martin and his comrades are interested in extending an equal opportunity to all religions to translate their beliefs into public policy. On the contrary, Martin knows Arkansas is predominantly a Protestant Christian state, and he would like to use that majority to continually pass legislation promoting that worldview. But if that happens, how long would it be before a state religion is established in practice, if not in name? That is, if the principles of one religion are infused into laws that everyone has to obey, people of other religious persuasions would, in effect, have a belief system forced upon them. There is enough evidence showing that the Founding Fathers had this exact worry in mind when they adopted the First Amendment. But with no apparent shame, today’s conservatives are insisting that our nation’s earliest leaders never intended to separate religion and government. To them, there is a difference between ensuring the freedom to worship and using government to advance religious doctrine. However, those legislators who either do not understand the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution; understand it, but prefer to demagogue to advance their religion at the expense of all others; or understand it, but lack the courage to challenge the majority and the popular will, should consider three things. First, majorities change. Those who are so eager to inject their religious beliefs into the legislative process should consider what it would be like if another religious group had the power to do the same thing. Second, the surest way to erode organized religion is to involve the government in its practice. Church attendance is lowest in democratic nations with state-sanctioned religions. Finally, why not be content with practicing your religion in your own home and your own church? Why bring it into government, which belongs equally to all? Or, as a wiser man once wrote: “Believing with you 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.” That man was Thomas Jefferson, who knew a thing or two about the Constitution.

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