Magazine article Church & State

My Profession of Faith: 'I Believe' Government Should Hot Endorse Religion

Magazine article Church & State

My Profession of Faith: 'I Believe' Government Should Hot Endorse Religion

Article excerpt

Perhaps the most frustrating argument I hear against the separation of church and state boils down to this: We need the government to "recognize" the value of religion--usually this means Christianity--in our city, county, state or nation. It's never adequately explained why those of us who are religious would need this. Can't we appreciate what we believe on our own?

This issue arose anew last month after Americans United won a preliminary ruling from a federal court in South Carolina stalling (and soon, we hope, permanently preventing) distribution of special "I Believe" license plates.

Lest anyone think the belief is generic, let me remind you that these tags feature a cross and a stained glass window--symbols not common in, say, the Hindu or Islamic traditions. It's clearly a "Christian" license plate.

Immediately after the grant of an order stopping the release of these plates, the blogosphere was ablaze (or, more appropriately, befogged) with comments about how this "censorship" would prevent the free expression of Christian beliefs.

Really? Since when do South Carolinians need a boost from government to express their faith?

In fact, long before South Carolina legislators decided to design this plate and then pass a bill authorizing its production and marketing, Christians there were perfectly capable of expressing their religiosity--even with their cars. Some put bumper stickers on their vehicles expressing religious views ("In the event of Rapture, this car will stop") and attached fish symbols to their trunks. The drivers were communicating their views and if other drivers didn't like it, too bad. That's free expression.

However, when state legislators decided to appropriate a few Christian symbols for their political purpose (never too unhealthy to pander to the state majority in a turmoil-filled election year), they crossed a forbidden line. They were now promoting Christianity over all other faiths.

Indeed, some legislators happily admitted they wouldn't promote Islamic, Wiccan or Buddhist plates. The argument seems to be: no Muslim plates because we don't want to look like we are supporting that faith, but a Christian plate is great--although in court we'll say that isn't a sign of support. When you combine hypocrisy with bad constitutional law, little wonder you buy yourself a lawsuit!

We also struggled through another holiday season when the same kind of hypocrisy was visible. Ever since the Supreme Court in 1984 (erroneously in my view) told communities that if you mix secular and religious symbols in your government "holiday" display you can indeed officially recognize the season, we've seen all manner of goofy meldings of Santa's reindeer and wise men's camels that should embarrass people of good taste whether they have any religious sentiments or not. …

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