US celebrates its most misread freedom
It may be America's most important gift to the world. It began 220 years ago this week. Yet many Americans, it seems, still don't understand what it entails. It's the country's unique experiment in religious freedom, rooted in the First Amendment to the Constitution.Skip to next paragraph
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As the first historic act in the experiment - the 1786 Virginia Statute Establishing Religious Freedom - is celebrated in Richmond Wednesday, many see that lack of understanding as a challenge for the growing religious and ideological diversity in the United States.
"While Americans do count freedom of religion as one of our most precious rights," says Audrey Smith, acting director of the Council for America's First Freedom, in Richmond, "many citizens aren't sure how they exercise those rights, or what is not allowed under our Constitution."
A national survey by the council in October, for instance, revealed a deep ambivalence about a fundamental principle of religious freedom: the separation of church and state.
While 47 percent of those polled said it is important to keep the traditional principle, 27 percent said it should be less strictly interpreted, and 23 percent said "there is really no need to separate church and state."
"I think folks don't understand what that means," Ms. Smith says. The separation is what makes religious freedom possible.
Another popular misperception relates to religious freedom in public schools. In the 2005 State of the First Amendment poll, 50 percent of respondents said students have "too little religious freedom." Yet students are free to pray individually or in groups, to form religious clubs and publications, to express religious views in their school assignments, and wear religious messages on their clothing. Unfortunately, many educators are unfamiliar with those rights, though the government has issued guidelines.
"There is tremendous importance to educating people more deeply," says W. Cole Durham, Jr., a religious liberty expert at Brigham Young University law school in Provo, Utah. "This is an issue people care deeply about and want to understand. They relate to these ideals in terms of their practical experiences, and they'll have emotional reactions."
Just last week, for instance, in a case with broad implications for religious schools and US universities, Calvary Chapel Christian School in Murrieta, Calif., sued the University of California for refusing to give applicants credit for courses taught from a religious perspective. The university says it has the right to set academic standards; the school says the university discriminates against conservative Christian viewpoints.
Issues of religious freedom have become more visible and contentious in recent decades as faith groups push back against what they see as an oversecularization of American life. But the debates have become so heated, some say, because groups at the extremes - secular and religious - are most vociferous.
"The [founders'] idea of a secular state with neutrality toward religion emerged out of the need to keep warring religious factions in check," says Professor Durham. "It envisions a place where everyone is free to bring their ideas and distinct identities to the table." But a secular fundamentalism has developed with its own dogma, saying everything has to be secular. That, in turn, spurred a religious response, which also has its fundamentalist strain.
The shouting matches have helped give separation of church and state a bad reputation, says Charles Haynes, of the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va. "There's been an effort over recent decades to persuade many conservative religious people that separation is not in the Constitution, and to undermine support for it."
In fact, some are vigorously promoting the idea among churches of a so-called "return to being a Christian nation."