First Amendment Advocate, Vol. 1, No. 1, February 2000
The Newsletter of the Oklahoma Chapter of Americans United
The Real Road to Religious Liberty
By Dr. Bruce Prescott, Executive Director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists
America stands at a crossroad. One road was constructed by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson when our nation was founded. Another road is being built by OK Rep. Ernest Istook to lead our nation in a different direction.
The road that Madison and Jefferson built was founded on the bill of rights. The First Amendment to the Constitution guaranteed religious freedom for every citizen. It created a broad road. A road wide enough that people of different faiths and beliefs could travel along the same civil highway in peace and harmony. People could keep right and travel safely in opposite religious directions on the same freeway. People moving in different branches along the same route could travel safely by staying within their lanes, passing with care, and not impeding the progress of other traffic. People were free to move from religious lane to religious lane easily and change directions safely. Negotiating the First Amendment road only required that travelers show common courtesy and simple respect to those traveling in divergent lanes and opposite directions on the same civil roadway.
The Madison-Jefferson highway has served us well for more than two hundred years. As will happen on any public roadway, some travelers will break the law, others will hog the roadway and, inevitably, accidents will occur. Our legal system has a long and distinguished history of resolving the conflicts that have arisen on the First Amendment roadway. A pothole here and there might need to be filled in, but it is still the best highway for religion that the world has ever seen. There certainly is no need for blocking it off with a constitutional barricade.
Congress is currently considering closing the Madison-Jefferson highway. That would be the effect of U.S. Rep. Earnest Istook’s mislabeled "Religious Freedom Amendment" (H.J. Res. 66). This amendment redefines the meaning of religious freedom and replaces the First Amendment road with a narrow, hazardous detour to a one way toll road.
Istook’s toll road is a political payoff to religious road hogs dissatisfied with the First Amendment. They resent rules requiring common courtesy and simple respect for the convictions of religious minorities. These road hogs are working to revoke laws that prohibit religious majorities from routing all traffic in a single direction.
Istook’s bill empowers the majority in each locality to determine which direction the religious highway runs through their community. When questioned on CBS TV about which god should receive public recognition, Istook replied, "They will just decide locally." Which prompted James Dunn, former Baptist Joint Committee Director, to protest that, on Istook’s roadway, the god of the "majority rules."
What happens to the people worshiping the god of the road less traveled? On Istook’s road the children of lesser gods (minority faiths) will pay their tolls (taxes) only to find that their lanes have been permanently diverted to narrow, obstructed, feeder roads below the highway. How long can we reasonably expect them to look up and smile at the smug faces speeding past them on the freeway above? How long will it take for each religion to create its own locality where it controls the roadway? What happens where the expressways of different faiths intersect? Head-on collisions? No reputable civil engineer would propose such a system for the traffic of a civil society, but a misguided coalition of religious social engineers thinks Istook’s system will be better than the system that Madison and Jefferson gave us.
The primary effect of Istook’s amendment will be to make it legal for the government to promote religious teaching and instruction. Specifically, the bill provides constitutional authorization for governments to support pervasively sectarian religious schools with taxpayer dollars. In effect, it proposes a highway full of dangerous, hairpin curves that ends on the schoolyard.
Once a system of parochial schools, segregated according to religious convictions, has replaced our system of public education, where will America’s children learn to respect the beliefs of others? How long will it take for normal rivalries between competing schools to turn into violent conflicts between competing religions? Is a school system like the one in Northern Ireland really better than our own? Can we not see that our nation’s forefathers posted the First Amendment as a sign to warn us that every road merging the lanes of religion and government leads to a dead end?
The real road to religious freedom is still the road that Madison and Jefferson built.
Everyone who has benefited from traveling on that highway needs to call or write their representatives in Congress. Let them know you prefer the flowering of diverse faith along the First Amendment freeway to the religious blight that will surely surround Istook’s toll road.
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”
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