Religious Freedom

Fiala on ethics: Religious freedom ideal is heart of democracy

By Andrew Fiala, Fresno Bee April 20, 2013

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The first 16 words of the First Amendment represent the heart of our democratic system, according to Charles Haynes, a senior scholar from the First Amendment Center in Washington, D.C.

Haynes gave a workshop on civic education and religious liberty at Fresno State on April 13, which happens to be Thomas Jefferson’s birthday. Haynes argued that the First Amendment represents a progressive step in world history. In other parts of the world, people kill each other over religious differences. Here, the worst that happens is that people go to court.

No system of government is perfect. But the First Amendment idea is a useful innovation. Unfortunately, not everyone agrees.

According to a poll by the Huffington Post conducted in early April, one-third of adults favor establishing Christianity as the official state religion in their own state. Thirty-two percent said they would favor a constitutional amendment making Christianity the official religion of the U.S.

In North Carolina this month, state legislators introduced a resolution stating that the Constitution does not prohibit the state of North Carolina from establishing a state religion. These legislators read the First Amendment as a narrow restriction on the federal government, which does not apply to state governments. Apparently they ignore the Fourteenth Amendment and legal precedents that extend basic rights to the states.

Thomas Jefferson may be turning in his grave. When he died, Jefferson wanted to be remembered for three of his most important projects: the Declaration of Independence, the University of Virginia and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.

In the Virginia Statute, Jefferson explained that God created human beings with free minds and that He does not use coercion to force us to believe. Jefferson also noted that political and religious leaders are fallible and uninspired men. For those reasons, religious belief should not be enforced, restrained, burdened or molested.

Moreover, Jefferson held “that truth is great and will prevail if left to herself.” He adopted that idea from the philosopher John Locke, who had argued that “the truth certainly would do well enough if she were once left to shift for herself.”

Not everyone is content to leave the truth alone to fend for herself. Some continue to think that religious truth needs to be propped up and defended by political power, by hierarchical institutions and by coercive laws.

Those who think that religious belief needs legal supports may be worried that humanity is easily corrupted. Some may fear that if religious truth were not backed up by state power, irreligion would triumph. Wouldn’t people ignore religion, if the law were indifferent to religion?

But if religious beliefs can only prevail when bolstered by coercive legal institutions, this may show us something lacking in those beliefs. It would be odd to say that we need the state to enforce ideas about gravity or mathematics. Those ideas can indeed defend themselves in a free and open marketplace of ideas.

But what about religious ideas? Jefferson thought that true beliefs would prevail in an open forum. It may be that only weak or false beliefs need to be defended by political compulsion.

The authors of the First Amendment were not directly concerned with setting up a marketplace of ideas. Rather, they wanted to prevent domination by one religion over others. As James Madison wondered, “Who does not see that the same authority, which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?”

Those who want to establish a state religion ignore the ugly history of religious violence that ensues when diverse religions vie for political power. The solution is to prevent any religion from obtaining political power.

As a birthday gift to Thomas Jefferson, we might reflect on the importance of the ideal of religious liberty. We might also reflect on the connection between religious freedom and Jefferson’s beloved University of Virginia.

For truth to prevail, people need to be properly educated about the history of religious violence, about political philosophy and about the progressive import of those sixteen monumental words.


A worthy goal — neutrality without censorship

A worthy goal — neutrality without censorship

Fresno Bee, September 24, 2011

A math teacher in San Diego County, Bradley Johnson, hung posters on his classroom wall that displayed religiously oriented statements from American history. The posters included phrases such as “In God We Trust” and “God shed his grace on thee.” Johnson claimed that he intended this as a patriotic celebration of America’s heritage.

The school district removed the posters, claiming that, “because they were taken out of context and very large” these phrases “became a promotion of a particular viewpoint that might make students who didn’t share that viewpoint uncomfortable.” This month, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in support of the school district. It found that Johnson’s display was not “neutral”– as required under the First Amendment. The court agreed that the school district was enforcing “neutrality” by removing Johnson’s posters.

Neutrality is an important ideal. Religious dissidents came to America in order to escape the power of the state-sponsored churches of Europe. Today, there is more diversity of belief, with growing numbers of nonbelievers and non-Christians. We need state neutrality with regard to religion.

But we should be careful that as we pursue neutrality, we don’t end up stifling debate. This case can be understood as a call for improved public discussions of religion. It is obvious that genuine philosophical debate is not conducted by hanging posters on the wall. We need to find better ways to discuss our most fundamental differences.

I discussed this case with Doug Fraleigh, chairman of the communication department at Fresno State. Professor Fraleigh — an expert on freedom-ofexpression issues — agrees that Johnson’s posters violated the First Amendment. But Fraleigh is concerned with a growing trend toward government regulation of speech. He worries that the court seems to think that “teachers are paid to convey the government’s message.” Fraleigh said, “While some control of classroom speech can be warranted, excellent teaching is an art which cannot flourish when lessons are subject to inflexible government control.”

According to Fraleigh, this decision extends a precedent in which the government attempts to “broadly regulate government employee speech.”

The court reasoned that the government can limit an employee’s speech at work, so long as it does not interfere with that employee’s right as a citizen to speak freely outside of work. Fair enough: Johnson remains free to discuss his religious views after work.

But there is a silencing effect, nonetheless, when teachers fear that they will run afoul of the authorities.

More extensive academic freedom — along with more civil public discourse — could be part of the solution. A truly open and tolerant discussion of religion would be useful in our diverse society. We would have to listen to one another and learn about other points of view. And we would have to understand our own beliefs well enough to defend them.

This may be too much to ask for in an elementary school context. But if teachers felt free to discuss religion in an open and inquiring fashion, school would be a more lively place: a place in which important ideas are considered and defended, instead of simply ignored in the name of neutrality. Such lively exchanges — if they were conducted with a genuine spirit of inquiry — would open student’s minds, stimulate curiosity and create a love of learning.

The philosopher John Locke said, “Truth would do well enough, if she were once left to shift for herself.” But our tendency sometimes points in the other direction. Our justifiable fear of the establishment of religion can lead us to limit freedom of discussion. The danger of this approach is that it prevents us from engaging in those sorts of vigorous debates that help us understand what we believe and why we believe it.

Johnson’s posters may violate the spirit of the First Amendment. But they are also weak as teaching devices. We need open-minded and inclusive discussion of our diversity, not simplistic posters and competing bumper stickers. In our increasingly diverse world, we need more and better discussions of religion and our religious differences.