In his book “The American Soul” Jacob Needleman writes, “At the root of the American ideal of liberty is the right of every human being to search for and attend to the dictates of conscience. Political liberty means first and foremost the social conditions necessary to allow this search for one’s own moral or spiritual light.” While many of our country’s founders followed the path of Christianity, and while the great plurality of Americans today claim membership in Christian denominations, we still have a sacred obligation to respect the liberty of any person as concerns his or her religious sensibilities.
One of the fundamental ways that this liberty is protected in our country is by the non-establishment clause of our Constitution. No citizen can be required or even expected to adhere to a particular creed or to a specific way of understanding God. We are free to follow the path of Christianity or Islam, Judaism or Buddhism, or to reject any religious doctrine at all. Government agencies, including public schools, are to be neutral in this regard, neither favoring nor disfavoring one religion over any other.
There are countless examples from our nation’s history of times when, contrary to our Founders’ ideals, religious liberty was not respected. Many colonies had established religions and placed burdens on those who were not members of the state-approved church, such as excluding them from holding political office.
Fearing that the country was being overrun by German and Irish Catholic immigrants (my ancestors), the Know Nothing Party tried, in the middle 1800s, to convince Americans that Pope Pius IX was trying to subjugate the United States to his authority. Jehovah’s Witnesses have repeatedly been attacked, sometimes violently, for not participating in ceremonies honoring the U.S. flag or for not reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, both of which are forbidden by their religious beliefs. Atheists who object to prayers being offered at public school assemblies are scorned, threatened, or told that they have no place in America.
The freedom to practice one’s religion, or to practice no religion at all, without interference from any government agency is a fundamental liberty that should be respected.
Fr. Michael J. Kavanaugh is pastor of Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Macon.