TO BELIEVE OR NOT TO BELIEVE
Freedom to worship God - or any god of your choice - has always been one of our most cherished fundamental rights.
So should freedom to worship no god at all.
But in practice, things really aren't that simple!
Many "conservatives" argue that religion actually was built into the legal infrastructure of our country. True, Congress could not establish a particular religion, but local communities were expected to develop and maintain healthful religious environments for their citizens. Conceptually, you probably could choose where to live based on your faith - in practice, you were expected to honor the church in which you were raised. The Virginia Bill of Rights actually refers to religion as a "duty that we owe to our Creator" and to a "mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other."
Religion has a double-edged psychological function.
For "progressive" people, religion can augment our understanding of science and cosmology; it can provide a reason for us to exist at all.
But for others, including many people who do very well in life, religion is the penultimate source of moral authority. The Bible, in a particular interpretation, is the only source of Truth. The apparent simplicity of its teaching is supposed to be the only standard for determining what is right, with no further debate or solitary introspection necessary. People shouldn't even read anything else (say, the theory of evolution). You either walk with the Lord or you don't. You're either a Believer or a Doubter. If you're a Believer, you have the moral obligation to convert others, even to use the power of the state if possible. "I believe" does seem to provide a fount of identity for many people. Religious faith, with its reconciliation of personal pride and humility, its direction of one's heart, and its insistence upon the limits of personal wisdom free from external authority, seems to circumscribe self-ownership. Ironically, the "religious right" sometimes intentionally misuses the vocabulary of freedom in an attempt to gain more control over the lives of others. But its rhetoric cannot prevail in an atmosphere of open and informed moral debate.
For some Protestant denominations, the dichotomy about faith has led to schisms, such as those among the Baptists, who at one time had been among the most intellectually progressive Christians. What is clear is that religious diversity, especially as it relates to psychological identity, is a tremendous cultural asset for our nation.
That's why I hope we use common sense in our policies towards religious displays in public spaces. I hope nativity scenes in town squares can be permitted, as long as all groups have a say. I hope a moment of silence in a school assembly or mention of "God" in a valedictory commencement address remains acceptable. Conservative members of Congress have proposed various constitutional amendments to permit "voluntary" school prayer or to allow public funds in religious institutions in certain circumstances.
There is, however, a problem when some behavior is treated preferentially because it occurs within a religious context. We saw a debate over whether a woman in Texas should have a death sentence for murder commuted because of her religious conversion. We see this when religious organizations are exempted from some anti-discrimination laws. Ultimately, the rest of society may "pay" for this.
In 1993, Congress passed a controversial "Religious Freedom Restoration Act." This law would have required the demonstration of "compelling state interest" before religious bodies could be regulated in a conventional fashion in such matters as zoning and employment. While libertarians may properly oppose zoning laws and employment regulations, it seems wrong to give religious bodies exemptions from regulations that are applied to everyone else. This gives religious organizations wealth at the expense to others. The Supreme Court struck down this act in June 1997.
But we've always lived with preferences for behavior based on religious beliefs. During past wars (especially Vietnam), persons who objected to combat, particularly on religious grounds, were given Conscientious Objector draft status - others died or got maimed in their places. There are more innocent examples. On Sunday nights during Basic Training in 1968, I could go off post and away from the Company Area ¾ if I went "to church."