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Naked Public Square - What Is Religion's Place in the Public Square?

Does The Separation Of Church And State Violate Religious Freedom?


Quite often, debates about the appropriate relationship between religion and government involved the appropriate place of religion in the so-called "Public Square." This public square might be meant literally, as in a public location open to all citizens, or it might be meant metaphorically, referencing the public spaces, events, and occasions where we all come together. Sadly, those who favor greater intermingling of religion and government fail to understand the nature of the public square.

A good example can be found in an article by Alan Sears for the Baptist Press News:

America was founded on the pursuit of religious liberty, including the liberty to acknowledge God and to pray in the public square. ... Those principles demand a place for religious expression in the public square. Unfortunately, radical advocates have long been trying to rewrite the Constitution by making the First Amendment say something it doesn't.

What Sears fails to understand — or, worse, simply fails to mention — is that there is absolutely no effort to prevent individuals from acknowledging God and praying in the public square, literally or metaphorically. Anyone can walk into any public square or public area and start to pray (just don't interfere with what others are doing). Individual Americans have a great deal of freedom of religious expression in the public square. There is nothing to lament.

What is restricted is the ability of the government to acknowledge God and to "pray" in the public square. This is not an infringement of our First Amendment liberties because the First Amendment does not give the government any freedoms — it gives us freedoms against government power. Indeed, the fact that the government can't pick some particular religion to express, some particular god to acknowledge, or some particular god to pray to is precisely why we have those religious freedoms. Does Sears not understand this, or is he engaging in a snow job to confuse his readers?

A free and just society recognizes that freedom of speech and religion applies to public religious expression as well as to private.

Either Sears is deliberately being ambiguous about the public/private distinction, or he just doesn't understand what he is talking about. One public/private distinction is between what we as individuals do in the privacy of our own homes, away from the view of others, and what we do out in plain view of everyone. It is true that free and just society must protect free expression in both cases.

There is, however, another public/private distinction — the one that is really at issue: private, as in what individuals do (whether in their homes or in the street) and public, as in what the government does (public funds, public housing, etc.). A free society must protect the religious expression of the former (individual citizens) but not the latter. The government has no "right to free speech".

Which does Sears mean? Does he even know? Or is he being deliberately ambiguous, making it look like he is saying the former (which everyone will agree to) when he really means the latter (which is actually the point being debated when it comes to things like government-funded displays of the Ten Commandments)? I think that as the president of an organization that is supposed to be dedicated to religious liberty, he has a responsibility to his readers to be clear about such things, don't you?

The First Amendment plainly forbids the creation of a national denomination, because that would be an "establishment of religion." It says nothing about the so-called "separation of church and state."

This is a tired old argument often used by those who think that religious liberty in America only applies to Christians and, therefore, governmental promotion of "generic, ecumenical Christianity" (whatever that is) is entirely appropriate so long as no single Christian denomination is singled out for special treatment. True, the Constitution doesn't mention the "separation of church and state," but it also doesn't mention a "right to a fair trial" either. Those principles are interpreted from the words that are there.

Why? Because the rights that are granted don't make sense otherwise. A right to a speedy trial and a jury of one's peers would be meaningless if the government could make it unfair in some other way. A right to "freedom of religion" would be meaningless for Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims if the government legislated doctrines and principles of some "generic Christianity." The separation of church and state preserves the independence of religion from government control and the government from religious control - something which serves the interests of both.

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