Each year park and recreation professionals are confronted by requests and concerns voiced by citizens that require decisions involving an interpretation of the First Amendment. Nativity scenes in public parks, facility requests by religious groups, Sunday start times for recreational sports, and many other issues challenge our legal acumen and public relations abilities.
What is commonly referred to as "separation of church and state" is in actuality a well-crafted yet deliberately vague amendment to the Constitution that allows for the free exercise of religious belief; while at the same time forbidding the establishment of a religious system by the government. Laws, as opposed to rules, are designed to allow for interpretation, and often reflect the changing mores of the nation and the practices of the local community.
These situations are difficult for administrators and are often emotionally charged for the citizens involved. Fortunately, there are a few cases that may help to initiate a fuller appreciation of the relationship between religious practice and recreation.
Immigration and the American Identity
The American experience over the past two centuries was one of constant immigration. The first permanent European settlers in American history came from England and the Netherlands. They were motivated by economic, religious and political freedoms that the New World offered. During the first 50 years after independence, the United States received about 710,000 immigrants,--which is about how many were admitted in 1995 alone. During the first century or so of our country's existence (1776 to 1884), the United States received about two immigrants an hour; in the 1990s, we are admitting more than two immigrants a minute.
Between the years 1892-1924, each wave of humanity that landed on the shores of the United States brought unique cultural practices, a desire for success, and a commitment to make a better life for themselves and their families. During this period the vast majority of settlers were of Western European origin. The predominant religion of these settlers was a form of Christianity. The moniker of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant accurately reflected the demographics of the United States during these formative years.
Since 1970, the foreign-born population of the United States has increased rapidly due to large-scale immigration, primarily from Latin America and Asia. The foreign-born population rose from 9.6 million in 1970 to 19.8 million in 1990, with the estimated foreign-born population in 1997 numbering 25.8 million. As a percentage of the total population, the foreign-born population increased from 4.7 percent in 1970, to 7.9 percent in 1990, and to an estimated 9.7 percent in 1997.
The United States accepts more immigrants than any other country in the world. The revised immigration law of 1990 created a flexible cap of 675,000 immigrants each year, with certain categories of people exempted from the limit. This law attempts to attract more skilled workers and professionals to the United States, and to draw immigrants from countries that have supplied relatively few Americans in recent years. The 1990 Immigration Act increased legal immigration by 40 percent.
During this same period the proportion of the total population that can be classified as Christian has declined from 86 percent in 1990 to 77 percent in 2001.
Over 37 million residents describe themselves as belonging to a religion other than Christianity (7,740,000) or having no religious affiliation (29,481,000).
From the onset of our democracy, differences existed between the various immigrant groups that were respected, yet not always understood. The motto of E Pluribus Unim, (Out of Many, One), guided the political and social actions of the nation. Ethnic groups tended to live in a particular part of town, and their lives centered on shared experiences of homeland, faith and their emerging status in the United States. …