Protecting Children and Religious Freedom

THE founders of our country and the authors of our Constitution and Bill of Rights knew the danger posed to minority religions by political domination from citizens raised in mainstream religions. That is why those documents were written to protect religious practices that are at variance with the majority's. Peoples and nations the world over have followed our lead in trying to curb the coercive power that a religious majority may seek to impose.

Legislation must always be written so that there is no doubt that religion, or the practice of religion, will be protected.

For two centuries, no state has been more attuned to this danger than Massachusetts. Today and tomorrow, as yesterday, it is incumbent on all of us who cherish that noble tradition to rise to the defense of even the smallest religious minority when those ancient rights are put in peril. The members of the Massachusetts Legislature are confronting such a threat now.

Though not a Christian Scientist, I recognize the rights Christian Scientists seek are those very rights the Founding Fathers recognized as essential to a free people - the right of individuals and families to work out their salvation according to their highest vision of God.

Currently before our Legislature is an important and necessary piece of legislation that frontally attacks a serious problem - child abuse. While there is a consensus within the Legislature that we need to strengthen the laws that protect our youngsters, we must also be careful to protect the balance between the First Amendment rights of parents and the rights of children to safe, healthy, and protected lives.

Many of my colleagues have been particularly sensitive to the fact that Massachussetts is the birthplace of Christian Science, that it is the home of The Mother Church and the World headquarters of the Christian Science religion. It troubles me deeply that some of those same colleagues hold an almost primal perception and belief that the failure to use traditional medical approaches to health care is, in the case of children, de facto evidence of abuse, and of wanton and reckless neglect. This despite recent studies indicating that as as many as 34 percent of Americans now seek some form of alternative health care. A good many thoughtful physicians themselves have come to recognize that traditional medicine may not have every curative answer.

The recent passage by the United States Congress of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act is a compelling reminder to those of us with responsibility in state legislatures to prevent any erosion of our religious rights.

We in the legislature must pass a child-abuse law that does not restrict the practice of the religion and does not impugn the lives of our Christian Scientist friends and neighbors.

Achieving this fair result will be greatly aided if those who want to affirm and protect religious freedom will take the time to write (or better still - call) their elected officials. Such messages ``from home'' are listened to, they have an impact, and they often make the difference when your legislators cast their votes. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHELCSPS.COM.

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