Religious Freedom

MANY of America's early settlers were religious dissenters who fled persecution. Nearly all came from lands where official intolerance produced sectarian strife. Their descendants, creating a new nation, wisely sought to keep politics out of religion and religion out of politics. Thus under the First Amendment, government would neither establish (be a patron of) religion nor prohibit "the free exercise thereof."Keeping politics clear of religion under the "establishment" clause has been fairly easy. Apart from a few thorny questions like granting vouchers for parochial or other religious schools, the major establishment-clause issue isn't whether the state may prefer one sect over another; but rather, whether the state may or should prefer secularism over faith. By and large, the Supreme Court has drawn sensible lines on issues like prayer in public schools and religious displays on public property. The distinction between God and Caesar safeguards churches as well as the populace. Yet many believers detect in recent government decrees not just neutrality toward religion, but actual antipathy toward religion as out of step with the spirit of the age. Government can enforce the establishment clause without warring against America's religious culture, which undergirds the nation's moral sense. Recent developments under the First Amendment's "free exercise" clause raise concerns that government's apparent neutrality toward religion masks, at best, indifference to religion as a protected value fully as central to the American experience as free speech. Last year the Supreme Court, in a case involving native Americans' use of peyote in religious ceremonies, ruled that religious practices enjoy no constitutional shield from laws of general application - i.e., laws not specifically targeted against religion. This reversal of previous Supreme Court doctrine, disappointing in its insensitivity to religion, has caused a large backlash in the religious and civil rights communities. A bill in Congress would reinstate the earlier rule that government must show a "compelling" reason to encroach on religious practices. We hope Congress will enact this reasonable and balanced law this term. Not all the founders were religious men, but they recognized religion's contribution to the national character. Americans today must be no less perceptive.

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