A church-state solution

Via MetaFilter: A proposed solution to the separation of church & state issue

The solution I have in mind rests on the basic principle of protecting the liberty of conscience. So long as all citizens have the same right to speak and act free of coercion, no adult should feel threatened or excluded by the symbolic or political speech of others, however much he may disagree with it.

Legal secularists may fear that when facing arguments with religious premises, they have the deck stacked against them. If values evangelicals begin by asserting that God has defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman, then, say the secularists, the conversation about same-sex marriage is over. But in fact, secularists can make arguments of their own, which may be convincing: if the state is going to regulate marriages, shouldn’t they be subject to the same equality requirement as every other law? Some might even go further and ask the evangelicals how they can be so sure that they have correctly identified God’s will on the question. They may discover that few evangelicals treat faith as a conversation stopper, and most consider it just the opposite.

When it comes to religious symbolism, typically some group will ask the state for a display or an acknowledgment of their holiday or tradition — a crèche or a statue, a song or pageant. Invoking Justice O’Connor’s endorsement test, legal secularists ordinarily object that if the state acquiesces, then it is embracing the religious symbol and excluding adherents of other religions. But this interpretation of what state support would mean may not be the best or most natural one. The fact that others have asked for and gotten recognition implies nothing about the exclusion of any religious minority except for the brute fact that it is a religious minority. There is no reason whatever for religious minorities to be shielded from that fact, since there is nothing shameful or inherently disadvantageous in being a religious minority, so long as that minority is not subject to coercion or discrimination.

Take the fact that the government treats Christmas as a national holiday. It would be absurd if Jews or Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists felt fundamentally excluded from citizenship by this fact — and I would venture to suggest that very few do. Most Americans are still Christians who celebrate Christmas, and the state acknowledges that fact, just as the culture does through the songs on the radio and the merchandise in the stores. The celebration may not always be deeply religious, but the atmosphere corresponds to the realities of the Christian majority. Just what is threatening to religious minorities about Christians celebrating the holiday or singing carols in school? What, exactly, is the harm in being wished Merry Christmas even if you’re not celebrating? The state has not made Christianity relevant to citizenship nor has it spent taxpayers’ money to advance the cause of the church. It has simply acknowledged the preferences of a majority. Some members of religious minorities may choose to spend December feeling bad that they are not part of the majority culture — but they would have this same problem even if Christmas were not a national holiday, since Christmas would still be all around them. The answer is for them to strengthen their own identities and be proud of who they are, not to insist that the majority give up its own celebration to accommodate them.

Although I’m more or less an atheist, I’m not the least bit offended by public religious displays. In fact I enjoy Christmas displays and join the festivities myself.

I don’t care what someone believes, as long as they don’t try to force me to believe it. Religion is a personal matter. Freedom of religion applies to all religions, not just the favored one. Freedom of religion gives everyone the right to practice their own religion, but doesn’t give anyone the right to proselytize their religion or to force others to abide by their beliefs or morals.

Christians are not under attack as they like to claim. They, like everyone else, are perfectly free to practice their religion as they wish. However, when they try to force others to believe the same, they’re crossing the line.

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