By Kent Willis, Executive Director, ACLU of Virginia
According to recent international survey, the people of the United States are among the most religious of all the Western democratic countries. Yet, we live in a nation where the government, by tradition and constitutional mandate, is the most secular.
This is no paradox, but the intended consequence of decisions made by our founders to protect religious freedom by keeping government out of it. History had taught the framers of the Constitution that governments with control over religion were invariably governments that persecuted those who did not practice the state-preferred religion. Matters of faith, they reasoned, should be personal.
Yet, on the hugely mistaken notion that religion will be better served if government can promote it, Virginia legislators went all out this year to bring more religion into government and more government into religion.
Delegate Robert Marshall's bill requiring "In God We Trust" to be prominently displayed in all public schools is good example of this bad idea. This was a shameful attempt to circumvent separation of church and state in schools by sneaking in a religious message through the back door.
Thanks to a last minute parliamentary maneuver in the Senate, the bill was killed at the last moment. But one must wonder what the 84 members of the House of Delegates who voted for it were thinking? Did they really believe that the average third grader would look at these words and say, "Oh, it's just the national motto?"
Lawmakers knew well that young, impressionable students would read "In God We Trust" each day as they entered the schoolhouse and would assume, as they do with other posted messages, that the school was trying to teach them something. Whatever grade they are in, public schools should not be telling students what to believe as regards matters of faith. That job is for family and religious institutions.
A second "In God We Trust" bill, which passed, is more alarming for its rhetoric than its objectives. Delegate Richard Black's measure encourages the display of "In God We Trust" in all public buildings. Why? Because, as the original version of the bill states, "our institutions presuppose a Supreme Being," and we must "acknowledge our need for the superintending care of the Supreme Being."
Judging from the survey results on religious practices, Delegate Black's religious assumptions may be in line with the vast majority of Americans. But is the law really the right place for this kind of message? Are the many different religions practiced in this nation not somehow diminished by this kind of casual government homogenization of theology? What about those whose religious practices do not acknowledge God in the same manner that Delegate Black does? Or those who believe in the same God, but do not believe he or she superintends -- that is, directs -- human behavior?
What about those who do not believe in God at all? Correct or incorrect, they have that right, and the government should not be telling them otherwise.
Another bill that passed allows the state to fund religious organizations to perform government duties. Under current practices, religious groups may receive state funds only if they set up separate non-religious organizations, hire employees without regard to their religious affiliation, and deliver the government services without a religious message. This is how a number of day care centers and other similar government-subsidized services operate, and it seems to work well enough.
Under the proposed law, though, no separate organization is required, employees who run the programs may be selected --or not selected-- on the basis of their religion, and the service may be delivered with a religious message. All with taxpayer's dollars.
Responsible lawmakers should not be peddling religion as part of their official duties. In their private lives, through their churches and individual actions, they are free to teach and proselytize their religious beliefs. Indeed, they are freer to do that here than in any other place in the world. But the laws they make should be neutral toward religion. This is the only way they can both respect the Constitution and truly represent the different religions practiced by their constituents.
By using the government as a vehicle to spread religious messages, these bills ironically present a threat to religion. Those nations with a higher percentage of non-believers than ours emerged from governments and traditions of coerced religious beliefs. Here, precisely because government has stayed out of religion, people have embraced it more fully than elsewhere.
Government is a 900-pound gorilla, and our founders recognized that. The Bill of Rights--which guarantees religious freedom for all individuals and mandates separation of church and state--exists because our political progenitors understood the power and penchant of governments, even when limited by democratic principles, to become the arbiter of spiritual beliefs.
The members of the General Assembly are doing exactly what our Constitution was designed to prevent. They are handing the government gorilla the ability to influence matters of faith. If history teaches us anything, the result will be curtailment -- not expansion -- of religious freedom.