“Sad, that their choice was taken away…. No one had to take a Bible if they didn’t want one. All through life you have to make life decisions. This would have been a good life training to stand up as an individual and say ‘no thank you.’ ”
The above was a comment left on a previous blog about the Gideon Bible giveaway that was to take place at the Colorado Mesa University’s nursing program pinning ceremony December 11. This commenter, and others who wrote in a similar vein, show there is a fundamental misunderstanding about U.S. government locally, and about the nature of the U.S. government and the benefits of keeping church and state separate.
They need to look more closely.
The U.S. Constitution contains no mention of “God,” “Lord,” “Jesus,” “Christ” or any other deity. The founders intentionally designed it as a completely secular document. The Declaration of Independence does mention a generic “Creator,” but the Declaration is not U.S. law. It was a letter addressed to the King of England. Many people confuse the two documents. The difference between them is huge. The only document that has the force of law behind it is the Constitution. It’s the only one that really matters.
The Bill of Rights is similarly secular, with no mention of a god or gods, lords or deities. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, contained in the Bill of Rights, provides for a separation between religion and government. This provision truly sets the United States apart from other countries.
The U.S. government’s character is secular by design, as evidenced by the fact that religion is completely unnecessary for our government to operate. The American ideal is for government to support all citizens in the enjoyment of their own personal choice of religion or lack thereof. Why? Because endorsing one religion over others violates the basic American principle of equality on which our country and laws are founded.
In the U.S., we have both religious liberty AND laws that prohibit government from meddling in religious matters.
Don’t Get It? Try This:
To understand why it’s better to keep church and state separate, try the following thought exercise:
Imagine for a moment that in the U.S., religion and the government are freely intermingled and government encourages citizens to participate in the dominant religion, exactly the way many Christians would love to see it.
Now imagine that the dominant religion isn’t Christianity. Instead, it’s Pastafarianism, whose followers worship in the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
In this new, religious U.S., you attend a City Council meeting. At the beginning of the meeting, the mayor tells everyone to stand and say the Pledge of Allegiance and to remain standing for an invocation given by a minister from the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, who prays as follows:
Our Pasta, who “Arghh” in heaven, Swallowed be thy shame. Thy Midgit come. Thy Sauce be yum, On top some grated Parmesan. Give us this day our garlic bread. And give us our cutlasses, As we swashbuckle, splice the main-brace and cuss. And lead us into temptation, But deliver us some Pizza. For thine are Meatballs, and the beer, and the strippers, for ever and ever.
You don’t like the Pastafarian invocation, but Council has a policy that anyone in attendance who doesn’t like the invocation or believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster can “sit, stand or leave the room” during the invocation.
But you are at the meeting because you need Council to approve a development permit so you can built your house. You know the Mayor is Pastafarian. You need her to vote in your favor, and you don’t want to take the chance of offending her by staying seated or running out of the room for the invocation. So you stand there, bow your head, clasp your hands and listen to the nutty invocation with a straight face, even though you think this whole part of the meeting is absurd and annoying.
How would you feel under this scenario? Would you obediently close your eyes, bow your head like everyone else in the room, clasp your hands and say “RAmen” at the end of the prayer to increase the chances you will get your development permit?
You might go along with it, but it would sure rub you the wrong way, wouldn’t it?
This exercise gives religious people an idea of what it’s like to be a nonbeliever at public hearings in Grand Junction and Mesa County, where citizens are routinely subjected to a compulsory public prayer, usually to someone else’s imaginary deity.
Is this the kind of America you want to live in? Where your nose gets rubbed in weird, compulsory religious ceremonies just because you need to get a sewer or development permit?
Why Does Christianity Need Government, Anyway?
If the above thought exercise doesn’t help explain why religion and government are best kept separate, maybe some logic will help.
Why do Christians believe that compulsive support for their religion by government is necessary? If Christianity is a credible, strong and persuasive enough religion on its own, then it should be able to stand on its merits and attract plenty of followers without coercion or backing from the government.
Perhaps Christianity, with all its myths and inconsistencies, isn’t all that credible and can’t stand on its merits. It could be that people are highly unlikely to adopt Christianity unless they are pushed towards it by government. Could that be why efforts to mingle Christianity and religion are so common locally, and even nationally? And who told Christians that using government as a promotional conduit is a good idea, anyway? After all, if KFC’s sales are lagging, they don’t promote their chicken at city council and county commissioner meetings. They buy billboards and run TV ads, so they can reach more people. Why does Christianity use government as a promotional conduit when they can reach more people with TV ads and billboards?
Maybe they seek the cache’ of government, even though respect for government seems to be relatively low wherever you go. Christianity hitching a ride on government’s back just doesn’t makes sense, no matter how you look at it.
Despite this, government officials still insist on hosting sectarian prayers at public hearings, and in so doing open a can of worms and risk miring their jurisdictions in distracting and potentially expensive problems.
Never has this been more true than now, in 2015, as Mesa County becomes more diverse than ever.
Government-instigated prayers at City Council and County Commissioner meetings can damage public harmony by creating the impression that the City and County hold one religion in higher esteem than others. Elected officials are completely free to express their personal religious beliefs by talking about the role their religions play in their own lives, but they do not have the right to use the power of their office to proselytize or impose their religious beliefs on others. Elected officials who pray, or allow invocations to “Jesus Christ” at public hearings held to consider sewer extensions, liquor licenses or new development applications, risk belittling the people who must attend but are not adherents to their own personal faith. And the chances of offending people increase all the time. City officials simply can no longer responsibly or fairly address this by conveying a “suck it up and put up with it” attitude towards citizens.
Confusing “Religious Liberty” with “Religious Privilege”
Some people think asking public officials not to say say “Jesus Christ” at public hearings amounts to religious persecution. They are confusing religious liberty with religious privilege.
Religious liberty means people are free to practice their own religion on their own time in appropriate places, like their homes, on the public sidewalk and in privately-owned buildings like churches, without hindrance. Religious liberty means you can believe anything you want, no matter how crazy it is.
Religious liberty does NOT mean religious groups and individuals can repeatedly get free air time to parade their own religions in front others at public government meetings and events, nor does it mean they can impose their beliefs on others, or try to regulate other peoples’ behavior to assure it aligns with their own personal beliefs. Invocations at public hearings do, in fact, provide free unlimited air time for the religious.
Religious privilege is when certain religions get free promotion at public meetings, or tax breaks other people can’t get because they aren’t adherents to the dominant religion, and when public officials use their official capacity to make it look like they prefer one religion over all others. Religious privilege is when one religion dominates public invocations, by accident or by design.
Courts have ruled that generic expressions of religion, defined as prayers to a “lord” or “god,” without naming a specific deity, are permissible at public hearings. But what is permissible can not just be a bad idea, but fraught with potential problems.
Parading religion at public events is courting trouble, as Colorado Mesa University found this out earlier this month. Mixing government with religion puts a spark to an emotionally charged issue, and there are very strict limits on how it can be done. Given this, it’s odd so many local elected officials and government employees seem unaware of the legal limits placed on mixing government and religion. This is particularly true in Grand Junction and Mesa County, where government repeatedly mingles with religion at public hearings and ceremonies, on City Hall grounds and even occasionally within District 51 schools. Elected officials who choose to mingle government with religion walk a fine line in which they risk offending or alienating multiple groups of people, can make some citizens feel like outsiders, bring an avalanche of bad PR and even risk lawsuits as citizens look for ways to make their displeasure known about being treated like second class citizens.
Public Officials: Know What You Are Doing
People for the American Way has compiled a list of 12 Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics that very clearly outlines the allowable limits for mingling religion with government. All local elected officials would do well to read them. It takes time and effort to learn and abide by all the rules, so many elected officials opt to be 100% safe by avoiding mixing religion and politics at all. That’s the only sure-fire way to treat all residents equally and avoid potential lawsuits over perceived government sponsorship of religion.
In the 21st century, Mesa County is more religiously pluralistic than ever. We now have a Muslim community, a Mennonite community, a Jewish community, a B’Hai community, a Mormon community and a growing and outspoken secular community, among many others. All are paying attention to what local government does, and how our elected officials act, and all are rightfully expecting equal treatment at their hands.
The real challenge is not for local elected officials to figure out how to correctly mingle government and religion, and cross their fingers and hope they don’t overstep legal boundaries or offend any groups. The real challenge is for elected officials to remain steadfastly neutral when it comes to religion, be hospitable to people of all faiths and of no faith, and assure their actions are always inclusive, not divisive, when it comes to religiosity.