ACRU

Peter Ferrara: The Freedom of Religious Expression Amendment

An overwhelming 88% of Americans approve of the reference to “One Nation Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, with 78% strongly approving. Only 11% disapprove, with 7% strongly disapproving.

Similarly, 90% of Americans approve of a Christmas tree or a Menorah on public property during the holiday season. Only 7% disapprove, with 5% strongly disapproving.

Nationally, 94% of Americans approve of a moment of silence in the public schools allowing children to pray to themselves, with 76% strongly approving. Only 5% disapprove. Americans disapprove of banning all prayer in public schools by 82% to 16%, with 68% strongly disapproving and only 9% strongly approving. Among Democrats, 66% disapprove, as do 85% of blacks and 80% of Hispanics.

These results come from voluminous polling data on a wide range of issues released earlier this month by Newt Gingrich. The polling was conducted by six different major firms over recent months for American Solutions, the new organization Gingrich leads. The polls reveal a startling degree of support among Americans for religious expression in public contexts.

Among the other findings, 81% of Americans disapprove of removing crosses and other such religious symbols from public parks and other public property, with 65% strongly disapproving. Only 16% would approve doing so, with only 8% strongly approving. Among Democrats, 76% would disapprove, as would 79% of blacks and 83% of Hispanics.

The American people approve of the Ten Commandments appearing in courthouses across the country by 78% to 19%, with 63% strongly approving and 12% strongly disapproving. Among Democrats, 75% would approve, as would 83% of blacks, and 77% of Hispanics.

By 93% to 6%, the American people agree “that the reference to God in the Declaration of Independence–that we are endowed by our Creator with the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness–is still important to acknowledge today.” Eighty three percent strongly agree; while a mere 3% strongly disagree.

This view is grounded in political philosophy. By 84% to 13%, the American people agree “that references to God in the Pledge of Allegiance and the Declaration of Independence are important because they make clear that certain rights can’t be taken away by the government.” Sixty Nine percent strongly agree, while only 9% strongly disagree. Among Democrats, 84% agree, as do 90% of blacks and 87% of Hispanics.

By 83% to 16%, Americans disagree with the statement that “the best way to protect religious freedom for ALL Americans is to make sure no religious expression is permitted in a public building.” Sixty four percent strongly disagree, while only 9% strongly agree. Among Democrats, 78% disagree, as do 77% of blacks, and 80% of Hispanics. By virtually the same margins, Americans disagree with the statement that “because of the separation between church and state, there can be no references to God in government sanctioned activities or public buildings.”

By 81% to 14%, Americans would oppose a candidate who says, “the best way to ensure religious freedom is to remove all religious references and symbols from public buildings, lands or documents.” This includes 77% of Democrats, 91% of blacks, and 80% of Hispanics.

Similarly, by 79% to 17%, Americans would oppose a candidate who says, “Just because America has a 200 year history of religion in government doesn’t make it right. Just like many things America did 200 years ago, this violates the U.S. Constitution and discriminates against those who are of other faiths or are not religious.” Those opposed include 80% of Democrats, 89% of blacks and 80% of Hispanics.

Finally, 89% of Americans say religion and morality is important to their family, with 69% saying very important. Only 10% say it is not important, with 4% saying not important at all. Also, 71% of Americans favor limiting Federal judges to 10 year terms, with 50% strongly favoring. Only 22% oppose such term limits, with only 11% strongly opposed.

What emerges from this pattern is that the ACLU secularist vision of the separation of church and state has support among the American people in the single digits. The American people consistently oppose this ACLU view by 10 to 1.

By that margin, Americans oppose banning religion from the public square. It is time for conservatives to go on the offensive in protecting religious expression in public.

Consequently, I propose a new Freedom of Religious Expression constitutional amendment. It would state simply, “Religious expression, freely chosen, in any public forum, venue or context, shall not constitute an establishment of religion under the First Amendment.”

Such an Amendment would simply remove the Left’s phony claim used to attack and restrict religious expression in public. It would not grant any affirmative rights, but religious expression would still be affirmatively protected by the freedom of religion and freedom of speech clauses of the First Amendment.

It would be hard to argue against such an Amendment, for mere religious expression is not anywhere near an establishment of religion. The historical establishments were official government religions, with citizens compelled by law to join them, attend regular services, and pay tithes in the form of taxes to the church. Those who didn’t follow the law were excluded from government office, voting, and other rights and government benefits. Merely observing or hearing religious expression is not remotely like any of this.

One of the very first opponents of establishments of religion was Roger Williams. He was so disgusted by the oppressive Puritan religious establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony early in the 17th century that he and a small band of freedom lovers trekked through the woods to found Providence and the colony of Rhode Island. There freedom of religion reigned.

Williams explained his philosophy in saying,

“All I have ever argued for is that all should be free to come to the ship’s prayers or not as they choose. There they will only hear the religious philosophy of the speaker, which they can accept or reject as they choose.”

Notice he did not say the ship should not have any prayers, even in such a confined context. He said all they would hear there is speech, which they can accept or reject as they choose. Speech was not remotely an establishment of religion. This is the philosophy embodied in the Freedom of Religious Expression Amendment.

Such an amendment would put to an end all challenges to Christmas or other holiday displays. Cities and towns would be free to erect such displays or not as they choose. Gone also would be all challenges to crosses or to displays of The Ten Commandments. All of that would be merely religious expression.

Also gone would be all challenges to students saying in commencement speeches, “I believe in Jesus”, or writing papers on “Why Jesus Is the Most Important Influence in My Life.” Schools could no longer oppress such students saying they are only enforcing the Constitutional prohibition on establishments of religion. Indeed, the Constitutional protections for freedom of speech and religion would most likely protect such expression from suppression.

The same would be true for students gathering to pray in public on the school grounds, such as student meetings at the flagpole before school commences, or for benedictions or invocations at graduation ceremonies. Students would be freer as well to distribute religious literature. The rights of religious broadcasters would also be more firmly grounded.

Good arguments can be made that current law should protect all of these activities. But such an amendment would put all these issues beyond dispute. The amendment would not resolve all establishment of religion issues. But it would resolve many of the most troubling.

Moreover, as the above polling data shows, the public would overwhelmingly support such an amendment. Fighting for it would unify conservatives and their political allies. By the end, even the liberals would vote for it.

Peter Ferrara served in the White House Office of Policy Development for President Reagan, and as Associate Deputy Attorney General of the United States under the first President Bush. He is General Counsel of the American Civil Rights Union.