Freedom of Religion Misconstrued

It is difficult to imagine that our founding fathers envisioned that the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America would be used to justify discrimination against any person or persons or to provide an exemption from compliance with the laws of the land.

The Constitution was adopted to guarantee the rights of citizens to choose how they wish to live their lives and to protect them against abuses by their government. Such protections were a high priority of the framers of our Constitution given that so many of their families had fled to America to escape such abuses. The Bill of Rights refers to amendments to the constitution that were intended to define the rights that were considered to be most precious to a free people.

The First Amendment specified freedom of religion, free speech, freedom of the press, freedom to peacefully assemble, and “to petition the government for redress of grievances.” With specific reference to freedom of religion, the intent was that not only are citizens free to choose their religion but also that the government is prevented from interfering with those choices.

Annually, at Christmas and Easter, we hear complaints that the refusal to grant permission to have displays of Christian worship symbols within or on the grounds of public buildings is somehow an infringement of the religious freedom of Christians.

This is a clear misinterpretation of the First Amendment. Our government’s obligation is to protect our right to decide how we worship, not play favorites. Public buildings belong to Jews, Muslim, and practitioners of other religions every bit as much as they belong to Christians and these American have every right to object to those symbols being placed on property funded with their tax dollars.

That Christianity has long been the dominant religion in the U.S. makes it that much more important that Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and others be protected from persecution or domination by Christians. Christians have no right to preferential treatment, their claims that the U.S. is a Christian nation notwithstanding.

The truth, today, is that the other religions of the world have become and will continue to become more prevalent in American society. While the adjustment to this reality may not come easily to Christians, it is an adjustment that cannot be avoided if we are to remain a free society.

Recent proposals to restrict the freedoms of Muslims, in the aftermath of both domestic and international terrorism by radical Islamic terrorist groups, proves the vital importance of such Constitutional protections. Imagine infringing on the rights of Christians, for example, following terrorist acts committed by armed anti-government militia groups who profess to be radical Christians executing the wrath of God.

History has shown that human beings, Christians included, are capable of horrific acts of violence against other human beings. Each and every one of us deserves the same protections under the law from individuals or groups that lay claim to the Divine right to pass judgment on their fellow man.

The same would be true for the rights of gays and lesbians. To think that we could use our constitutional right to freedom of religion to justify discrimination against any population of Americans, including gays and lesbians and now transgenders, is scary. The American Congress, as duly empowered by the Constitution, has passed legislation prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and these laws have been found to be Constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. Claiming that religious freedom grants one license to disregard the law of the land is a frightening prospect in a free society, no matter who does the proclaiming.

The United States of America may well be one nation, under God but it is for individual citizens to determine how they wish to profess their faith and beliefs, or not at all.

A Taste of Bigotry

The following story shared from a Facebook post by Jeff Pearlman, a friend and well-known sports writer and best-selling author, relates an experience that includes my son-in-law (Brant) and my grandson (Ben), in which two white men got just a taste of the bigotry that black men and women, gays and other minorities face every day of their lives. For me, the most poignant aspect is that incidents of bigotry and prejudice such as this will be a regular occurrence throughout the life of my sweet two-year old grandson; a child whose heart is as pure as his laughter is engaging.

Two men, a black baby, a small town

Me and my pal, Ben.

So we spent the past few days at a chicken farm (long story) in Walton, N.Y., a tiny town far upstate in Delaware County. It was me, the wife, the kids and two couples who we’ve met up with for the past nine or 10 summers. It’s always fun, always funky, always a unique adventure.

Anyhow, one of the couples (Jeanne and Brant) have two children—one of whom is African-American. He’s an adorable 2-year-old boy named Benjamin Avery, and he’s funny and snugly and owns one of the all-time great laughs; a loud “Heh! Heh!” that brings a person to his knees.

Now, Walton is a crazy, crazy, crazy conservative town; one of those places that goes Republican in every election. It’s very white and very rural and v-e-r-y pro-gun. There aren’t many items one can purchase in Walton. But a firearm? No sweat.

So, on one of the days we needed some supplies at the house, and Brant, Benjamin and I took the 12-mile drive from the chicken farm to downtown Walton. The word “downtown” is a helluva stretch—there’s a CVS, a Subway, a crappy supermarket, a tiny ice cream stand, a bank. That’s sorta kinda it. Oh, and two or three restaurants that should probably be avoided.

The first place we stopped was the supermarket, where we needed to purchase some towels and diapers. We got out of the car. And it was—again—me, Brant and Benjamin. Two white males and a black baby. Shopping for diapers. In a supermarket. In Walton. And it hit me. I mean, it just HIT me: I’ll never look more gay.

I don’t mean “gay” as an insult. I mean gay as in gay. Homosexual. It’s me, my husband Brant and our adopted baby, and we’re shopping for diapers. And, as we walked through the aisles, I felt eyes upon us. Even if they weren’t upon us. Even if nobody noticed or cared—I felt it. I sorta kept my head and eyes down and went about our business. Same thing at our next stop—CVS. Was the clerk being rude because she thought we were gay? Because Benjamin is black? Or for no reason at all? Perhaps that’s just who she is. Quiet. Surly. Who knows?

Before returning home, we made one more trip—to Gifford’s Sport Supply, the gun shop (we needed fishing poles). I opened the car door, walked toward the entrance, noticed some sort of anti-Obama sticker on the window. For a second, Brant thought that, perhaps, he should stay outside. But we both went in. And … and … and … nothing. The clerk was helpful, friendly. No problems. I left, and took a deep breath.

But the whole experience got me thinking: It’s a valuable thing, feeling gay. Or black. Or Hispanic. Or whatever you aren’t. The awkwardness is healthy and eye-opening; the feelings of worry palpable. I think of all the racism remaining in this country; all the homophobia; all the xenophobia.

Some of it comes from pure hatred.

But just as much is a product of ignorance.

Of simply not knowing how it feels.”