Manassas Journal Messenger | Balancing church and state

ne religion is as true as another” – Robert Burton (1577-1640)

In August we read about the lawsuit involving the Ten Commandments monument that had surreptitiously been placed in the Alabama Supreme Court rotunda by Chief Justice Roy S. Moore, a jurist who is also a religious fundamentalist. It is a relief that a federal court settled the matter by ordering the monument’s removal. However, there are elements within the population who still believe Christian sayings should adorn public buildings and that any prohibition on the sayings somehow infringes on the First Amendment rights of true believers.

Some legislators in northern Virginia have sided with fundamentalist Christians in other cases and have similarly sought to place religious mottos and sayings in public buildings, particularly schools. Most notably, Delegate Richard H. Black, R-Loudoun, advocated a mandatory “moment of silence” for prayers at the beginning of each school day. The measure passed, but only after all references to “prayer” were stricken from the legislation.

Delegate Robert G. Marshall, R-Prince William, pushed for “In God We Trust” banners in all public schools, ostensibly on the grounds that the motto was part of the country’s cultural heritage. Those who know Mr. Marshall have since alleged his statement was disingenuous, at best. Finally, Delegate L. Scott Lingamfelter, R-Dale City, tried to get a law passed requiring that posters of the Ten Commandments be placed in all the schools, in effect thumbing his nose at the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in 1980 that such displays are unconstitutional.

A common thread binding all of these proposals is the theory that the citizenry, and particularly schoolchildren, should be pumped full of religion on a regular basis. Sunday worship services are not enough. People need to be hammered with religious sayings every time they enter a public building. The presumed benefit of such an environment would be a moralistic, god-fearing citizenry, perhaps like those that exist in the theocracies in the Middle East.

Federal courts at all levels are loath to go along with such plans. They invariably rule that government should always be neutral in matters of faith.

Federal jurists contend that neither elected nor appointed public officials have the right to advocate one religion over another. The best way to do this, in their view, is to maintain a strict “wall of separation” between church and state.

I support the federal courts on this matter, but I am open to the idea that religious sayings might still have a place in public buildings. I said “might” because I am not sure. But at least one idea has a certain appeal: publish religious sayings of all major religions, side-by-side. Citizens could read or ignore them, as they wished.

No one religion would be favored over another. Thus, schools could have posters which depict the Ten Commandments, but they would also have to display posters which explain the Buddhist Eightfold Path, the Five Pillars of Islam and the Nine Laws of Manu of the Hindu faith. Additional space would have to be set aside for important sayings of approximately 2,000 other religions, traditions, denominations and sects.

The fundamental assumption that underlies our democracy is that people are rational and able to evaluate competing claims and ideas. Religious beliefs, in the final analysis, are nothing more than collections of ideas, written by mortal men and passed down through the ages.

The government must respect them all equally or, as now, stay out of this matter entirely.

Gary Jacobsen lives in Woodbridge.

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