Practice Makes Imperfect: From Natural Rights to Mean Genes
Zarra, Ernest J., III, Social Studies Review
There is much discussion and legal posturing at both the state and national levels about first amendment rights of expression, including religious displays on public property. California recently drew national attention with the passage of controversial state propositions into law:
* Proposition 22: Marriage defined as between a man and a woman only.
* Proposition 71: Establishing an embryonic stem cell research center at the cost of $6 billion over 30 years.
As we studied and analyzed many of the landmark Supreme Court cases, my senior U.S. government classes and I asked some very probing questions. Recent Supreme Court interpretations surrounding First Amendment freedom of religion issues have prompted my classes to consider where classical political theorists such as Locke, Rousseau, Hobbes, Montesquieu would stand today, in terms of political and social rights. There are apparent intellectual and cultural divides in American society today, particularly with issues such as the nature of humans, actions stemming from this nature, and how life, itself, derives its value. According to many students in my classes, these divides are due to legal decisions affecting the foundational principles and religious values comprising the history of our nation.
NATURE OF THE CONCERN
Throughout the course of the past academic year, we discussed writings of both Madison and Jefferson on religious freedom (viz. Declaration of Independence; Federalist 47, 51). It is no surprise that both Founding Fathers maintained views that, in a free society, individuals should have the liberty to make up their own minds about religion and as well as be granted "freedom of conscience" to do so. Yet, over the years, it seems some of the methods of interpretation of First Amendment rights-used by the majority of any Supreme Court-have had serious implications for Americans, politically and socially. These implications have led to paradigmatic changes-pressuring the consciences of a great number of Americans on behalf of factions comprised of political or social ideologues.
What was once a matter of "cultural" First Amendment religious "conscience" for the masses has been replaced by a hyper-backlash. Smaller populations now get much of the legal attention. What one group deems a victory in a Supreme Court decision on religion, another group might find an assault on religious beliefs and practices.
James Madison "worried that freedom of conscience would be threatened if government supported some religions (at the expense of others)... He concluded that government should not interfere with religion in any way" (We The People, p. 155). But, as my students appropriately argued, there are differences between government not interfering with religion and government banning religion within public spheres. Is not the banning an interference of sorts? As one student put it: How is it that freedom of religion, has now turned to freedom from religion?" This is an excellent question and it raises a classic debate over the balance of the free exercise and establishment clauses of the First Amendment.
Has government gone too far in legislating against even the mention of religious values and principles in general society? Where will the law settle with respect to religious values in science? And, has the government established "something" about religion by doing more than the Framers intended? These are excellent questions for another article to explore.
INCONSISTENCY OF MESSAGE
Each day, while Congress is in session, chaplains pray as our "government" begins its work. This religious "practice" makes students sit up and take notice regarding just exactly where the "separation" of church and state really exists. They question why this can occur, and why religious engravings and inscriptions all over state and federal government buildings and monuments are allowed, but somehow "their" individual expressions are disallowed, or are at great risk. …