The role of religion
Conflicts over moral values drawn from religious beliefs play a significant role in conversations about government regulations and policies. While there is a strong argument for keeping religion and faith-based values out of civil proceedings, it is also clear that religion – specifically Christianity – was an integral part of the lives and motivations of our Founding Fathers. “In God We Trust” is sculpted onto our coinage, and the president takes the oath of office holding one hand on a Bible.
What happens in society when the beliefs of one religion are in conflict with another? Which one should prevail? Are Right-to-Life advocates or those opposed to same sex marriage based upon deeply-felt, religious values wrongly trying to to impose their beliefs on others? How should the beliefs of atheists be respected?
How are church and state to be separated?
Freedom of religion – some say the rise of Christianity itself – can be traced to the Roman Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Man (313 AD), which introduced a limitation or separation between government and religion. The policy had practical benefits to the government regarding civil matters (property ownership and taxes), and established the precedent of religious tolerance.
Since then, however, religious intolerance has been evident throughout the world and in the United States. From the time of John Smith and Roger Williams in 17th century New England, religion and faith-based values have been closely tied to power and governance in America – resulting in the imprisonment, torture and death of people strictly because of their religious beliefs:
Read about the Salem witch trials on Discovery Education
Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith murdered while in prison in Ohio, 1844
Your liberty ends at my nose
— Keith Gray, U.S. Army Infantry, middle school teacher (retired)
Religious tolerance implies a separation between church and state; as do the U.S. Constitution and subsequent writings of our Founding Fathers. Principles set forth in the historical record imply the independence of government from the moral values espoused by any organized religion. Rather, civil matters are governed by principles established by law, which may include humanitarian or moral values, but which are interpreted through the application of non-sectarian, undiscriminating logic.
While the government should not favor or discriminate against any religion or its members, it is likewise inappropriate (a form of discrimination) for the sacred values of one religion to be imposed by legal means on those of different religions or the general public. Even though 2/3 of the population of the U.S. profess a strong belief in the existance of God, faith cannot be the sole basis for law.
So … one’s religious beliefs are a protected personal right – so long as they do not impose on the rights of others – and can guide one’s values, life, and decisions. Of equal importance is religious tolerance, which enables people of different sacred values to live together under one set of faith-neutral civil laws.