By James C. Nelson, Montana Supreme Court Justice (Retired)
Today is Religious Freedom Day. This day is officially proclaimed by the President on January 16, of each year. The day commemorates the Virginia General Assembly’s adoption of the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom, written by Thomas Jefferson and adopted on January 16, 1786. This statue became the basis for the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution. That clause of the First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
Montana’s Constitution at Article II, Section 5 contains an identical prohibition.
In Jefferson’s view, individuals must be entitled to believe or to not believe as they will and, importantly, without one’s religious identity bearing on his or her “civil capacities.”
If he were living in today’s America—or in Montana—Jefferson would be appalled. Indeed, Jefferson would see our nation heading towards theocracy. The Christian Right, Republican Party and Tea Party are hell-bent to inject fundamentalist religious doctrine into every facet of American’s lives.
Case in point. Before the current session of Montana’s Legislature even started, a coterie of Christian Right Legislators invited fundamentalist Christian pastors to speak at the Capital. These preachers made no bones about their message:
America is founded on Christian principles. Legislators need to defy “unjust” and “immoral” laws and court rulings. The Christian God needed to be put back into the statehouse. Freedom of Choice and LGBTQ rights must be attacked and defeated on all fronts and by whatever means necessary. Divine laws trump civil laws.
Of course, these sentiments typify exactly what the framers of our Constitution intended to prohibit by adopting the First Amendment Religion Clauses. At the time the First Amendment was adopted there actually were official state churches held over from colonial times; people were prosecuted and imprisoned for their religious practices and public statements at odds with those of the official or prevailing local religious views; Jews and Muslims were demonized and persecuted; Christians often violently disagreed over Biblical interpretation, religious doctrine and practice. Each sect had its own lock on the truth.
In that historical context, and based on the views of men like Roger Williams, Thomas Jefferson, John Leland, George Washington, and James Madison, the First Amendment religion clauses were drafted to guarantee freedom of belief and tolerance for all religions--and to keep government out of that mix. Importantly, there is not one mention of God, Jesus, Christ, Christianity or prayer in the religion clauses. There are only two references to “religion” in the Constitution—one in the First Amendment and another in Article VI banning any religious test for public office.
Indeed, the “Christian Nation” concept first came into existence during the Civil War-- largely conceived and perpetuated by Northern ministers who, when the war was going badly, announced that northern defeats were God’s punishment for ignoring God in the Constitution. But, when the tide of war shifted, these same ministers then proclaimed that God was rewarding the spiritually upright side of the conflict. Thus, America being founded as a “Christian Nation” is fiction—and, worse, exactly contrary to what the framers were trying to negate in the First Amendment.
So, the current Christian Right movement to force religion into government and down the throats of those who believe differently—or not at all—has no Constitutional underpinnings or authority.
Rather this movement stands the hallowed principle of the separation of church and state on its head. This important principle incorporated in the First Amendment religion clauses, is really just a simple quid pro quo: The State cannot legislate with respect to the belief, doctrines and practices of sectarian organizations; but, on the flip side, the State cannot establish or adopt via legislation any religious belief, doctrine or practice. The “freedom of religion” clause is balanced with the “no establishment” clause; one clause compliments and completes the other.
Bottom line. Our Country and our State do not need religion in politics. We do not need religion in the statehouse or any other official house or office of government. We, as citizens, owe our civil allegiance our federal and our state Constitutions. We can believe in whatever God and religious doctrine we choose; or we can choose not to believe. But that belief is personal and, under the First Amendment and Article II, Section 5, our personal religious belief cannot be forced upon others under the auspices of government. Government is not permitted to be in the business of telling people whether to pray, when to pray or who to pray to.
Americans have no problem—indeed feel morally bound—to condemn the Islamic theocracies of ISIS, Iran, and Al Qaeda. We all recoil, horrified, at the beheadings, honor killings, stonings, and the insane terrorist rampages of these religious zealots. Yet our elected representatives turn around and demand that America become a Christian state, governed in the name of God and Jesus, with laws grounded in Biblical doctrine and in the Christian Rights’ own brand of religious zealotry. Islamic theocracy is evil; Christian theocracy is good.
In point of fact, under our Constitution, theocracy of any kind has no place in America.
So, if Religious Freedom Day officially celebrates freedom of religion. That’s fine. The First Amendment guarantees religious freedom; and that, like our other fundamental rights, is worthy of commemoration.
But, if Religious Freedom Day officially celebrates religion, that is quite another matter. When the government and elected public officers officially celebrate religion, they violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
The line between the two celebrations is a bright one. We either stand with the Constitution or we stand against it.