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Food for Thought From the Baptist Joint Committ…

Food for Thought

From the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs web site:

Differing visions invoked

on Religious Freedom Day

President Bush marked national Religious Freedom Day by proclaiming his vision of religious liberty from the White House. Meanwhile, from the steps of the nearby Jefferson Memorial, church-state separationists accused Bush and his ideological allies of endangering that very liberty.

Religious Freedom Day commemorates the adoption of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom on Jan. 16, 1786. The statute, authored by Thomas Jefferson, later became the model for the religion clauses of the First Amendment.

ìOur Founding Fathers recognized that religious freedom is a right we must protect with great vigilance,î Bush said in a Jan. 16 statement. ìWe must continue our efforts to uphold justice and tolerance and to oppose prejudice; and we must be resolved to countering any means that infringe on religious freedom.î

But several groups that advocate separation of church and state chided Bush ó as well as congressional and judicial leaders ó for some of their recent actions. Participating in a joint Jan. 16 press conference at the Jefferson Memorial were leaders of The Interfaith Alliance, Baptist Joint Committee, American Jewish Committee, National Council of Churches and Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Interfaith Alliance President Welton Gaddy, a Baptist minister, said that Bush and other government leaders are forgetting Jeffersonís devotion to religious freedom. ìThomas Jeffersonís vision of the necessity of religious liberty is as important today as it was in 1786,î Gaddy asserted. ìBut our national memory is short and this precious principle is in trouble.î

Gaddy and some other religious leaders say that Jeffersonís idea of church-state separation is necessary to preserve the First Amendmentís stated goals. The Supreme Court has tended to agree, although recent decisions have placed that interpretation somewhat in doubt.

In a Jan. 12 speech commemorating the historic Virginia statute, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia attacked the courtís interpretation of church-state separation, claiming that the Constitutionís original meaning did not create government neutrality toward religion but government equality among all religious faiths.

Scalia said government endorsements of ìgenericî religious sentiment such as the motto ìIn God We Trustî should be perfectly allowable under the Constitution. He also asserted that if courts wanted to ban government endorsement of such generalized religious faith, they should first wait for voters to authorize such an interpretation explicitly.

Gaddy criticized that stance, asking, ìIs Justice Scalia suggesting that we put religion on the ballot of our national elections and determine by a majority vote what religious language should prevail, which name for God should be used in public ó if, indeed, any divine name at all?î

J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee, criticized Bushís executive order implementing parts of his ìfaith-based initiative,î which stalled in Congress last year. The initiative expands the ability of governments to give money to churches and other religious organizations to perform social services.

ìBy taking such an aggressive approach, the administration seems to be telling religious organizations to take the money now and worry about the consequences later,î Walker said. ìThis far-reaching action shows a lack of concern for constitutional safeguards that have served us well.î

Besides asserting that government funding always increases the risk of government regulation, Walker also said governments should not fund faith-intensive programs because of something that the Virginia religious-freedom law itself asserted: ìThat to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical.î

In his statement, however, Bush said the faith-based initiative would actually expand religious freedom because it ends ìdiscriminationî against heavily religious groups in distribution of government funding. ìIn America today, people of faith continue to wage a determined campaign to meet needs and fight suffering,î Bush said. ìMy administration has been working to ensure that faith-inspired organizations do not face discrimination [in receipt of government funds] simply because of their religious orientation.î

Other speakers at the press conference criticized a recently proposed constitutional amendment, sponsored by Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., that would permit government-organized prayers in public schools, as well as a bill offered by Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., that would allow churches to engage in partisan politics without losing their tax-exempt status. Jonesí Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act failed by a wide margin in the House last year, but he has introduced it again.

In addition to the criticisms of proposed legislation, one speaker offered an endorsement of a bill that he said would expand religious liberty. Rich Foltin, legislative director for the American Jewish Committee, urged passage of the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, co-sponsored by Sens. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and Rick Santorum, R-Pa.

ìThe Workplace Religious Freedom Act promotes a fundamental principle — that no employee should arbitrarily be forced to choose between obedience to his or her faith and keeping a job,î Foltin said. The bill would make it easier for employees to express religious beliefs or ideas on the job in ways that do not burden their employers heavily.

ó Robert Marus

Associated Baptist Press

RFTC: January 22, 2003

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