Battle between freedom of religion and freedom from religion

Battle between freedom of religion and freedom from religion


While some Americans are convinced that religion is under a massive attack in the United States, others argue that Christianity, in particular, continues to exert too much influence. Perhaps you’ve seen Ron Reagan, son of the former president, in a television ad.

The 30-second ad reads: “I’m Ron Reagan, an unabashed atheist, and I’m alarmed by the intrusions of religion into our secular government. That’s why I’m asking you to support the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the nation’s largest and most effective association of atheist and agnostics, working to keep state and separate, just as our Founding Fathers intended.” Reagan ends with a wry smile, identifying himself again as “Ron Reagan, lifelong atheist, not afraid of burning in hell.”

From the outset of our republic there have been competing views on the role religion should play in our society. Some, like the original Pilgrims, had left Europe to practice their faith freely. Many of these were inclined to favor extensive ‘blue laws’ with the hope that such restrictions would help produce a society reflecting their zealous observance of Christianity. At the same time, early leaders of our new nation also included men like Washington, Adams and Jefferson, all church members, but heavily influenced by the Enlightenment with its emphasis on reason. They were skeptical of orthodox religion, viewing it as saddled by ancient superstitions that needed to be set aside.

When Methodist and Baptist circuit riders crisscrossed the young nation in the 19th century, evangelical Protestantism with its revivalist spirit appeared to be winning out. Then three major developments had a heavy impact.

First was the massive immigration from Ireland, Italy, Poland, and other Catholic countries, which brought a different set of doctrines and religious traditions and cut into the overwhelming Protestant majority. Simultaneously, some mainline Protestant congregations were coming under the increasing influence of the Social Gospel which focused more on workers’ rights, civil liberties, and racial justice and less on dutiful holiness and eternal salvation.

In 1925 a teacher in Tennessee named John Scopes alarmed fundamentalists by teaching evolution instead of the Genesis account of creation. The Scopes trial led to a new science curriculum. By 1960 the Biblical story had been largely set aside and teaching evolution had become mandatory in public schools nationwide.

Some of the older generation will recall prayer and Bible reading in the classroom. On many Mondays our sixth grade teacher would ask those who attended church the previous day to stand and be recognized.

Back in the sixties, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, was frequently depicted as the most hated woman in America. She successfully brought suit that disallowed religious practices in public schools. How often, over the years, I’ve heard people moan that America began its ethical nosedive when ‘God was forced out of our schools’. Ironically, one of O’Hair’s two sons, William, rejected his mother’s angry atheism to become a Baptist minister.

President Trump has pledged to stop discrimination against religion while the Freedom From Religion Foundation calls for the end of practices that favor religion. The FFRF cites dozens of violations of the separation of church and state, everything from chaplains in Congress and the military and generous government funds given to various faith-related groups to tax exemptions for church properties and references to God in the pledge to the flag and on our currency. The FFRF, the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and other groups warn that the new administration might try to reverse Roe v. Wade, push vouchers for religious schools, diminish rights of the LGBT community, and in other ways violate what they argue is the constitutional principle of church-state separation.

A case soon to be decided in the Supreme Court helps illustrate possible complications. Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Missouri, has a preschool program with a little playground. In 2012 the church applied for a state grant that makes playgrounds safer by providing a rubberized surface material. The state constitution prohibits aid to religion and the grant has been denied in the lower courts. How should the Supreme Court rule? Should the school face discrimination because it is religious? On the other hand, if public funds must be provided, will parochial and other private schools expect public funds to fix rickety stairs, gymnasium floors, or falling plaster? Perhaps the government would be required to subsidize Muslim madrassas as well as Christian and Jewish schools. Where would this end?

Or, another illustration. Should a florist or a caterer who opposes same-sex marriage on religious grounds be free to refuse to provide flowers or food for such a wedding? Or, does the separation of church and state require that, whatever their personal views, they must not discriminate against such customers?

One of the most significant cases in recent years involved Greece, N. Y., near Rochester, where legal action sought to eliminate the prayer offered at the beginning of town council meetings. In 2014 the court voted 5-4, dividing along religious lines, that it be permitted if diverse faiths are represented. Five Catholics voted in favor. The three Jews on the court voted against it. They were joined by Justice Sotomayor, a Catholic but not practicing. While Protestants collectively are by far the largest religious group in the country, and all but one of our 45 presidents making appointments have been Protestant, there had been no Protestants on the court for years until Neil Gorsuch, an Episcopalian, was recently appointed.

This battle over religious freedom goes back to colonial times and is likely to intensify during the Trump Administration.

Ralph Lord Roy of Southington is a retired United Methodist minister. Email:

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