Jun 282005

The Supreme danced again onto the stage where the culture clash over religion on public life is playing.

Monday, the Supremes announced two decisions related to the issue of religion in public. In one, they ruled that the Ten Commandments cannot be displayed in Kentucky courtrooms. In the other, they ruled to allow the display of the Ten Commandments on the Texas State Capitol grounds.

The Court actually did a decent job of defining some guidelines in these two rulings.

In the Kentucky case, framed copies of the Ten Commandments in two courthouses went too far in endorsing religion, the court held.

But on the Texas capitol grounds, where the Mosaic law shares space with other monuments highlighting other themes, the court found that this was an allowable display of American heritage, and upheld the Constitution’s stance of neutrality toward religion.

This was a very moderate tack. The Court clearly upheld the Constitutional provision forbidding the establishment of religion by the government, but not totally stripping an acknowledgement of religion as part of our history and heritage.

The decisions brought to mind the “creche” cases of the 1980s, in which the high court walked a fine line by essentially saying that displaying religious symbols was allowable as long as they were part of a larger, primarily non-religious grouping.

The past has seen this debate between the extremes of the religious and secularist. However, it’s not just the conservatives and secularists anymore, but also other people of faith, many of them devout Christians, who have become alarmed at the aggressive agenda of the conservatives.

As former Sen. John Danforth, a Republican from Missouri, recently opined in the New York Times, “It is important for those of us who are sometimes called moderates to make the case that we, too, have strongly held Christian convictions… Our difference concerns the extent to which government should, or even can, translate religious beliefs into the laws of the state.”

I believe the senator was speaking a largely unheard majority in the religion debate, and also hinted at the contest’s larger scope in politics, legislation, courts, and schools.

A single and profound question underlies the religious tussle: To what extent should government bring religious beliefs into people’s lives?

The nation need look no farther back than last week to see how harmful a coercive approach can be. The Air Force, investigating complaints about proselytizing by evangelical Christians at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado, concluded Wednesday that while there was no religious discrimination at the Academy, there was “certainly insensitivity.”

Complaints included a banner hung in the football locker room that pronounced players to be members of “Team Jesus Christ”; pressure for cadets to attend chapel; a Jewish cadet being told that the Holocaust was a revenge for killing Jesus, and government e-mails citing the New Testament.

While acknowledging improvements, the investigating Air Force panel recommended the academy establish guidelines for religious expression so that no minority feels coerced into others’ views (the vast majority of the cadets identify themselves as Christian).

The Teri Shaivo case is another example of this extremism at play in the public square.

The use of religion in government-related places where there is an element of coercion or unfair treatment should be avoided. Any attempt at coercion unglues the respect that holds this diverse country together.

That’s why, as the former Missouri senator so aptly concludes, “efforts to haul references of God into the public square, into schools and courthouses, are far more apt to divide Americans than to advance faith.”

Well said Senator.

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