Thursday, June 2, 2011

Let's Hope I Never Have to Appear in Court...

...because I will NEVER place my hand on a Bible and say the words, "...so help me God."

Let me make this clear: I am fully aware that the concept of “separation of church and state” does not exist in the United States Constitution. The phrase was coined in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury (Conn.) Baptist Association on January 1, 1802. (You can read the unedited text of the letter on the Library of Congress website, here.)

Because the Danbury Baptists were a religious minority in their state, they were concerned that the freedom to practice religion was a favor granted by the state, rather than an inalienable right. They believed that Connecticut might – at some point - seek to establish a state religion, and though they knew Jefferson had no control over state laws, they hoped that if Jefferson publicly expressed his belief that there should be no official state religion, the individual states would respect it.

In their letter to Jefferson, the Danbury Baptists said (in part), “Our sentiments are uniformly on the side of religious liberty--that religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals…”

I believe with every fiber of my being that church and state should be separate. What, exactly, does that mean to me? Among other things, it means:

- “In God We Trust” should not be printed on our money

- “Under God” should be removed from the Pledge of Allegiance

- There should be no reference to “God” in public schools, public government, or any publically-funded organization. There should especially be no formal prayer during organized school events.

This discussion was prompted by the recent ruling of Chief U.S. District Judge Fred Biery, which states that speakers at a public high school graduation ceremony cannot call on audience members to bow their heads, join in prayer or say "amen." I posted a status update on Facebook praising this decision, and was rewarded with an immediate firestorm. Some quotes from my “friends” :

- “Somebody please tell me exactly where in the US Constitution I can find the "separation of church and state", because I've looked and I can't find it in there anywhere. Hmmm..."

- “In a nutshell, he was against the government interfering in the practice of religion.....which is exactly what happened in this ruling."

- "Yep. It's a concept run amuck in the 20th century. A huge group has their rights infringed upon so a small group or individual doesn't get there wittle feelings hurt. Disgusting."

- "It amazes me that one person has a problem with this and now nobody can do it. If the kid doesnt want to pray.....don’t pray...it’s pretty simple.”

Sweet baby cheeses, people! WTF are you thinking??? We’ve already covered the issue of “separation of church and state” appearing in the Constitution (which, btw, I did not even imply in my original status update – not sure where that came from). The second comment says this ruling interfered in the practice of religion. Umm…how? Unless public high school graduation ceremonies have changed a lot in the 17 years since I graduated, it is not a worship service, therefore no one is practicing their religion. Comment #3 says: “A huge group has their rights infringed upon so a small group or individual doesn't get there wittle feelings hurt.” Well, a “huge group” of people opposed desegregation, but it happened, because it was the right thing to do.

The right of the individual to his own opinion is (or at least should be) absolute. To me, this all comes down to one thing: can the individual walk away? If a private business wants to post religious billboards, or close on Sundays so their employees can attend church, I have no problem with that. If a zealot wants to stand in the street and talk to passersby about Jesus, it’s fine with me. If an individual student wishes to pray silently at any time, even during school hours, that's great. If a group of students wants to form a club that meets on school grounds before or after classes, they should be allowed to. I don’t even have a fundamental disagreement with people knocking on my door to share their faith (although I do point to the “No Trespassing” sign and close the door). In all those situations, I am not a captive audience.

However, if formal prayer or other reference to “God” is included in a high school graduation ceremony, city council meeting, Congressional hearing, polling place, etc., my only choices are to ignore it or leave the gathering. If I am offended and leave, my voice is silenced and my right to participate in my government is violated. Many people say the non-Christians are making a big deal out of nothing (see comment #4, above). They say if you don’t want to pray, you don’t have to. And it’s true that a Muslim, Pagan, Jew, Buddhist, or agnostic can sit quietly during a Christian prayer. They are not being forced to convert to Christianity. But that’s not the point! The prayer – for which they are a captive audience – is not to THEIR “God.” And THAT is offensive to me.

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