Saturday, May 15, 2004

The Religious Liberties Restoration Act

An email arrived in my inbox this morning, urging me to go to a website of the American Family Association named “”; part of an AFA “online campaign.” The website asks its readers to contact the U.S. Senators from their state, urging them to support SB 1558, the “Religious Liberties Restoration Act.”

The RLRA is quick and easy to read. At its core, it would reserve to the states the power to regulate the display of the Ten Commandments, the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, and the use of the national motto, “In God We Trust,” when these activities take place on property owned by the state or a political subdivision of a state. It would also establish an exception for these activities, removing them from the jurisdiction of any federal court inferior to the Supreme Court. Finally, it provides that the text of the Pledge of Allegiance would include the phrase, “one Nation under God.”

Clearly, the provision regarding the display of the Ten Commandments addresses the situation which arose last year in Alabama, when a federal court ordered the removal of a monument displaying the Ten Commandments from the building in which the Supreme Court of Alabama meets. Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, who had ordered the monument’s placement, was suspended for defying the order of the federal court for its removal; he was later impeached and removed from his office. Similarly, the provision for the Pledge of Allegiance addresses the ruling in 2002 by the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, finding that the inclusion of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge is an unconstitutional “endorsement of religion.” The national motto, “In God We Trust,” has also been targeted by many lawsuits.

The Pledge of Allegiance was written by Francis Bellamy, and was first published in August, 1892. Interestingly, the original pledge made no mention of God, even though Bellamy was a Baptist minister. The phrase “under God” was added by an act of Congress in 1954, at the urging of the Knights of Columbus, a Roman Catholic men’s benevolent society. This was a political act; to distinguish us from the “commie atheists” of the Soviet Union, with whom we were engaged in the Cold War. The motto, “In God We Trust,” first appeared on a penny minted in 1864. It was proposed to the Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, by the Rev. Mark R. Watkinson of Ridleyville, Pennsylvania, in a letter dated November 13, 1861. [I will assume that most readers know the source, origin, and dates for the Ten Commandments.]

Now, let me say that I have no reason to oppose the “Religious Liberties Restoration Act.” By the same token, I have no reason to take the action urged by the AFA. I am not going to contact our U.S. Senators to ask them to co-sponsor or otherwise support SB 1558. Why? At the heart of the matter, I guess I’d have to say that I do not believe the power of the state should be used to impose beliefs that are not accepted by the population at large. Those who believe in the sovereignty of God know that this nation, and all nations, are “under God,” whether we say this when we pledge our allegiance, or are silent. To require those who do not believe this to say the words makes the words empty of meaning. Writing the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone and placing them in the lobby of a courthouse, or on the mall outside the statehouse, or on the walls of a classroom does not write these on the hearts of those who do not believe; while those who believe strive to engrave these on their hearts and minds, whether or not these are on public display. Again, I have no objection to the display; I believe no harm is done to anyone by these things being found in public. But I can see the point of those who object to the required recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Turn it around: what if the state were openly atheistic, and required all the children in school to recite a statement denying the existence of God, and ridiculing those who believe in such “nonsense.” (This, of course, has happened, and may still be happening.) Or, suppose the state used its power to make declarations about another religion – Islam would be especially timely to use as an example. As Christians, we would protest this, if given the opportunity.

Forced inculcation of the faith does not work. We should not use the power of the state to impose belief on those who do not share it. We can – and should – and must teach our children about faith in God, and His rule over all nations; but we do not need to do so in the public schools. (That’s one of the reasons I’d like to see more Orthodox churches opening private schools.) We should all know, and strive to live by, the Ten Commandments. The state, in its role as the protector of society from those who would prey upon it, has an interest in using its power to enforce those commandments that directly affect public order: Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not bear false witness. But how does the state enforce, “Honor thy father and thy mother;” or, “Thou shalt not covet” – to name just a few?

Forced inculcation of the faith does not work. We should not use the power of the state to impose belief on those who do not share it.