Butler County Times Gazette
  • Kent Bush: Exercising religious liberty without coercion

  • The framers of the Constitution never intended to remove God from government
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  • The devil may be in the details but the framers of the Constitution never intended to remove God from government. However, the framers never wanted religion to control government or government to control religion.
    Maintaining the balance of religious liberty without religious domination can be tricky.
    The Separation of Church and State is a non-legislated concept that many quote and few truly understand. The Establishment Clause in the First Amendment is often interpreted to mean no religious action can be supported by the government, however the people who created the Bill of Rights allowed religious activity in many governmental actions so that is obviously not the case.
    One of those activities is prayer before legislative sessions at the local, state and national levels. The authors of the First Amendment used chaplains in Congress and sanctioned prayers before the legislative body convened.
    Many local bodies follow that example. The Cities of Andover, Augusta, El Dorado and Rose Hill all have invocations before the regular business of their governing bodies. Douglass doesn’t.
    No school board in the county regularly opens its meetings with prayer although it has happened on occasion in Augusta.
    About five years ago, a city in New York began receiving complaints that its invocations violated constitutional protections of non-believers. At the time, the Greece City Council allowed two Jewish leaders, a Wiccan priestess and a few other non-Christian people to give invocations before the governing body began its action for the evening.
    When a group of citizens brought action against the council, two appellate courts decided in opposite directions which led to the issue going to the Supreme Court late last year. In May, the court ruled that the practice did not violate the constitution and was consistent with historical uses of prayer in public forums.
    However, the Greece City Council just can’t take yes for an answer. Rather than continuing the court approved prayer method, the governing body created a new policy that seems to be an attempt to further limit participation by non-Christian people and groups, which will almost certainly head back through the court system.
    The ink was barely dry on the 5-4 Supreme Court decision when the council passed a policy that prayers would only come from representatives of “assemblies with an established presence in the town of Greece that regularly meet for the primary purpose of sharing a religious perspective. Assemblies outside the town can participate too if at least one Greece resident attends them regularly and specifically asks in writing for them to be included.”
    By requiring an “assembly” the council seems to be limiting some people who simply don’t gather in groups. I’m not sure that even that de facto exclusion violates the establishment clause in the First Amendment, but I bet the courts get to discuss it in more depth soon.
    Page 2 of 2 - “It's an enormous bait and switch,” said Gregory Lipper of the Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “The rules appear to disqualify some of the few non-Christians who delivered invocations at town meetings before the Supreme Court ruling.”
    Greece Town Attorney Brian Marianetti said, "What we're really looking to do is just get back to the business of the town and serving the residents.”
    If that were so, it seems the best policy would have been sticking to the status quo the Supreme Court already approved.
    There is no doubt that invocations are legal and consistent with America’s history. But policy makers need to be careful in how those giving invocations are chosen.
    Christians can’t celebrate a victory like this simply because it appeals to our own beliefs.
    Last week a Florida Mayor kicked a man out of a meeting because he would not stand in honor of the invocation and Pledge of Allegiance. It isn’t religious liberty anymore when only those who believe like you get to do what they want.
    A school in Midlothian, Tex. has had plaques hanging on an elementary school building since it was constructed in 1997 that recognized it was dedicated “in the name of the Holy Christian Church” and featured two crosses as well as the phrase “Soli Deo Gloria” to christen a public elementary school.
    It seems like a violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause to include one of the five tenants of modern Protestantism on a plaque in a public school but the school operated without any problems for 17 years.
    Now the district is being threatened with legal action by the Freedom From Religion Foundation for its seemingly obvious violation of the establishment clause. Apparently the school district feels safe in keeping the plaque on display because they held public forums about what should be inscribed when the school was being built.
    Everyone recognizes the absolute unfairness and associated problems with Islamic Sharia Law. We have to be equally vigilant to cling to religious liberty without crossing the line between the freedom to exercise our religion and coercing non-believers to participate with us.

    Kent  Bush is the publisher of the Butler County Times Gazette and can be reached at: kbush@butlercountytimesgazette.com

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