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Freedom of and From Religion

Separation of Church and State, the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution, presents inexhaustible complexities. On the one hand, our Founders sought to separate political control of the new country from a State religion, having seen the corruption that follows the establishment of an official, State protected religious doctrine.

On the other hand, the U.S. clearly embraces many religious values, particularly those cherished by the major Western religions, like the sanctity of life and the value of family.

But there are values dear to Americans that are not inherent in religion, like individualism. Americans also deeply esteem independence, as well as personal autonomy and responsibility. Not to mention the freedom to worship God as each of us sees fit, theoretically a founding principle of the Pilgrims.

But suppose integral to your religion is the use of an illegal drug, like peyote? May you use peyote to encounter God according to your traditional rituals? If so, then may I establish a new religion with the same practice? Or suppose you believe that a particular group represents Satan, and therefore is worthy of death? May you either encourage violence against them or outright kill them? Think of Dr. Tiller, the abortion doctor murdered in church in Wichita. These issues may seem theoretical, but they are not. Where does respect for religion end and the right of the State to control behavior begin?

None of us would agree that murder can be sanctioned by a religion, yet both Emmett Till (racism) and George Tiller (abortion) were murdered by people who believed they, the murderers, were performing God's will, and their supporters sought to protect them on that basis. The abortion debate roils over the very definition of life and murder. One side thinks abortion is an act of autonomy, "a woman's body is her own property." The other believes abortion is state sanctioned murder. Both sides religiously hold their mutually exclusive views.

May a State demand that parents vaccinate their child for the child's health, or for the health of greater society by preventing contagion? I, personally, would say no to the first and yes to the second, but I know many people are outraged at both stances. And if you think I'm dead wrong about a parent's right to refuse vaccinations, how about causing pain to an 8 day old child by circumcising him? Can the State forbid circumcision as unnecessary surgery that causes pain to a child unable to consent?

The United States welcomes all religious groups, all ethnicities, all backgrounds to become citizens of this great country. Therefore, no religion may be allowed to attempt to exclude those groups from society as a whole. A religion may exclude citizens from its own ranks, but it may not insist that citizens be excluded from our society or share in its rights. Some groups may not allow gay members, but they ought not be allowed to prevent gays from being part of the larger society with equal rights.

Religions are entitled to their practices among their members, but may not coerce greater society to follow their beliefs. The Westboro Church can spew all the hatred they want within their church, but as a society we may not discriminate against gays in any fashion. Permitting a religion to exclude those who are not its own members from society at large is not practicing religious tolerance or giving religious rights. That's social bigotry. We as a nation do not hate people for their inborn traits. But we allow individual religions to discriminate within their group.

With this exception: When a religion is so widespread, so influential by virtue of their percentage of the population, that their internal exclusion affects society as a whole, they must be limited in their actions negatively affecting other groups. Society cannot allow Christians to only patronize merchants in the Christian Yellow Pages. Our nation's major religious groups must protect the rights of minorities. They must act for the general welfare, even if that means giving up some of their own beliefs when society itself is at stake. Those opposed to abortion within large religious groups ought not attempt to codify their beliefs in law. It's enough to demand that their own members obey.

Christianity at one time preached antisemitism. No longer, thank God. But teaching hatred on a scale that impacts everyone's life is not freedom of religion either. It's limiting the rights of minorities to enjoy the benefits of citizenship and freedom, and that right is cherished and promised to each of us equally.

This is clearly a balancing act: or religious freedom vs. exclusion from society. Religions may practice exclusion within their own ranks, if they are small enough. But freedom of existence, individual independence, personal autonomy for all must be accorded relatively equally, and therefore a religious teaching that limits the rights of non-believers must be excluded as bigotry and not forgiven on the excuse of religious freedom. My rights end where yours begin.

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