Religion is a characteristic, not a defect | Josh Holdenried
A much ink is flowing on the separation of Church and State. But much of it is wrong. The phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the United States Constitution, and public expressions of faith do not equate to theocracy. The First Amendment exists in part to protect religious freedom while preventing the establishment of a national church. The amendment’s recognition of religious freedom as our first inalienable right also suggests that there is something important about religion. In a series of recent decisions, the Supreme Court of the United States invites us to recall this truth and to recognize that religion is a feature, not a defect, of our national life.
In Carson v. Makin, the Court ended Maine’s discriminatory tuition assistance program in a 6-3 decision. In this program, participating students were allowed to use state dollars to attend any private school of their choice, except for those considered “sectarian”, i.e. religious. The word “sectarian” carries with it the ugly legacy of the “Blaine Amendments,” a series of state constitutional provisions passed in the late 19th century to prevent Catholic schools from receiving public funds. A nativist wave of anti-Catholic bigotry at the time helped these amendments spread across the country.
The Court’s decision in this case has been widely touted as a victory for parental rights and school choice, which it is. But what about the fact that 37 states still have Blaine Amendments on the books? The answer is simple. These amendments survive not because attitudes toward Catholics are the same as nearly a century and a half ago; on the contrary, they survive because the basis of discrimination has shifted from anti-Catholic bigotry to anti-religious animosity. Just as the Blaine Amendments were instituted due to concerns that Catholics had “dual loyalties” to pope and country, the Blaine Amendments remain today due to the suspicion that religious citizens may have dual loyalties to theocracy. and democracy.
The bigotry behind the Blaine Amendments, past and present, remains conspiratorial and unsupported by evidence. Nevertheless, opponents of religion pledge to interpret every public display of faith as an infamous plot to establish a nationalized religion. This fanaticism indicts even the most innocuous expressions of faith, such as silent prayer.
In Kennedy v. Bremerton School Districtthe Court ruled against a school that fired its coach for praying silently on the field after high school football games.
School officials had ordered the coach to stop praying where he could be seen. In another 6 to 3 decision, the Court ruled against the school and correctly stated that “respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse Republic – whether such expressions take place in a sanctuary or on a ground, and which they manifest by the spoken word or a bowed head.
Religious expression can also take the form of publicly displayed symbols. This was the case in Shurtleff v. City of Boston, which arose when the city of Boston banned a Christian camp from flying its flag in the traditional “flag-raising” ceremony in front of City Hall. The flag in question included an image of a Latin cross, prompting city officials to ban the inclusion of the flag due to concerns about the “separation of church and state”. They did so even though no other flag had been denied participation since the ceremony began more than a decade ago. The officials’ decision to suddenly reject a candidate because of the religious nature of his flag forced the Court to rule unanimously against the City of Boston.
These recent victories for religious freedom are worth celebrating. But the focus should be on the importance of religion, rather than liberty or liberty in the abstract. America enjoys religious freedom because the writers understood that religion inculcates public morality. A free society, in which government intervention is limited, is not possible in a population enslaved by vice. It’s no secret that America is rapidly secularizing. We should ask ourselves if this is not only the result of discrimination against religion, but also because religious freedom is too often excused rather than defended as a virtue.
In his farewell address to the nation, President George Washington warned against the expulsion of religion from public life, saying that we should “cautiously accept the assumption that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be granted to the influence of a refined education upon minds of peculiar structure, both reason and experience forbid us to expect national morality to prevail to the exclusion of the principle religious. The Supreme Court’s recent mandate invites us to heed Washington’s warning and recommit ourselves, with charity and humility, to respecting and celebrating religious faith not just as a freedom, but as a virtue that affirms and protects a free society.
Josh Holdenried is vice president and executive director of the Napa Legal Institute, which educates nonprofit faith-based organizations.