29 July 2012

I have been sitting on this post for a little over a month or so because I wanted to be clear in what I said, and I wanted to check some of my source materials. I’ve also been a little afraid of offending some people who I happen to really like, even though we disagree. At the same time, I need to be honest in what I feel and believe, and not sit by idly while those beliefs are ignored.

I am an active member of the LDS church. I try to attend faithfully, contribute and overall live a Christ-like life. The LDS Church demographically is very conservative, especially within Utah. That means, when discussions turn the least bit political, I am likely on the wrong side of the issue for most people in the congregation. This problem arose a few weeks ago in the adult Sunday School lesson. I won’t bore you with all the details, but the main flow became one of outrage at the ‘persecution’ of religious people in this country, as well as the devastating social effects of ‘removing god from our schools’.

After the 3rd or 4th comment, I could no longer sit quietly. I raised my hand and when called on said:

I think we need to be careful about the level or exaggeration and hyperbole we use when we talk about being persecuted for our religion. We are all sitting in a church that operates without government interference. We came today without fear that our presence was being recorded and tracked by the government. We can worship how we want and when we want.

We can talk to our neighbors and our co-workers about our beliefs without fear of imprisonment. We can wear religious symbols in public and at work without fear of reprisal.

There are limits on what the government can do with regard to religion, but as private citizens, I just don’t see the persecution that keeps being talked about here.

There was a hew and cry about the governments “war on religion”, and again comments about not being able to pray in school, to which I tried to respond but wasn’t really effective. The instructor (who I respect and is a good instructor I should add) tried successfully to move along from that topic to the next bullet point in his lesson.

That would have been the end of it, had the instructor and I not found ourselves leaving the building through the same door at the same time. He mentioned to me that he appreciated my comments, and the fact that I felt comfortable expressing them. I thanked him, and said I thought he did a good job, and that these discussions are hard for me because I think the separation of Church and State is an important and often misunderstood topic. That lead to him bringing up some specific examples of religion in schools (prayer, religious choral music, etc) and said he would have not problem with a mainstream protestant prayer, or “even a Muslim prayer”. I tried to explain my issue with the entanglement of government and religion, and especially the promotion of a particular religion by schools and then I used this example:

Most people who are in favor of organized prayer in schools don’t have much of a problem with Christian prayer, and some are even okay with Jewish and Islamic prayer.

But what about that first parent-teacher conference when you find out that the teacher leading little Johnny in pray every morning is a Wiccan?

To which he responded:

Well, there are religions and then there are “religions”.

Unfortunately that is where the conversation ended. I had no chance to follow-up with:

  • Yeah, but who decides which is which? How do we determine which is appropriate?
  • What about the atheist, who, regardless of what you believe, shouldn’t be forced by the government to pray at all?
  • What about all the places in this country where someone is saying “But what about the teacher leading little Johnny in pray every morning that is a Mormon?” and the response is “ Well, there are religions and then there are ‘religions’.”

I could certainly go on, but in reality, the constitutional law here is pretty well settled. The rule applied by the Supreme Court is the “Lemon Test”. When there is legislation or government action concerning religion:

  1. The government’s action must have a secular legislative purpose;
  2. The government’s action must not have the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion;
  3. The government’s action must not result in an “excessive government entanglement” with religion.

If the government’s action is contrary to any one of these three statements, the action is said to have failed the “Lemon Test” and is found to be unconstitutional.

  • Students have the right to be excused from some activities if they conflict with their religious beliefs.
  • Individual students have the right to pray whenever they want to, as long as they don’t disrupt classroom instruction or other educational activities, or try to force others to pray along with them.
  • Students can form a “Bible Club” or other religious club, as long as (1) the club meets during non-school hours; (2) school officials aren’t involved in organizing or running the club, and (3) the school makes its facilities available to all student groups on an equal basis. 

Please click through the link above to read through more things that are allowed and disallowed. But ultimately remember this… We live in a pluralistic country with a secular government. The separation of Church and State is important for this society to continue to function, because without it, we are likely to fall prey to the tyranny of the majority. The Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause of the constitution guarantees that individuals can worship (or not) in public and private with strictly limited government intrusion, and at the same time, any government establishment of religion is prohibited.

I don’t want anyone else deciding for me what is a religion, and what is a “religion”.

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