Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Separation of Church and State

The separation of church and state, and religious freedom, are sacred American principles. The founders of the United States constitution saw these principles as sacred because these ideas were the antithesis of all the experience and history they knew in Europe.

When the state uses religious beliefs to govern, tyranny ensues. Think of Queen "Bloody" Mary in England in the late 1500's. When she became the Catholic queen, hundreds of Protestants were burned at the stake and persecuted. The opposite occurred when her sister, Elizabeth I, became queen. Throughout history, very few positive examples of a church dominated state can be found, in which certain minorities or groups are not oppressed or even murdered. Think of the Inquisition and the Crusades.

Along with religious belief comes deeply held moral thoughts about right and wrong, philosophical beliefs about the origin of life, and beliefs about how to conduct one's life. (By the way, nonreligious people have these ideals too!) I am
passionately in support of an individual's right to decide what those religious beliefs might be. However, at the same time one person's religious fervor should never infringe on another person's access to state and federal institutions.

Should a religious majority be able to vote to strip away civil privileges from a minority? Any American's answer should be a resounding
no way! However, this is exactly what just occurred in Maine last week, and has occurred in 30 other states. The voters of Maine repealed a bill that allowed gay people to get married legally in their the state. This law was passed by the Maine state legislature in the spring of 2009. The vote to repeal gay marriage passed by a 53% to 43% margin. When polled later, the majority of folks who voted to repeal gay marriage rights cited religious reasons for their vote.

Marriage is indeed an 'institution' associated with religious rites, but
that is a matter of choice. Many people do not marry in a church, nor do they have to. Yet, along with marriage comes many civil benefits from the state and the government. Throughout history, this may not have been the case. At one time marriage was just recognized by one's chosen church (in the 17th and 18th centuries). Today, however, there are over 500 civil benefits, rights, and privileges associated with marrying a spouse. The solution is either to allow all people access to state benefits, or have marriage only be a church rite with no civil associations.

Would heterosexual married folks be willing to give up all the state and federal associated with their marriage? Hardly likely. Some people scoff and belittle the importance of these rights, and say, "Well, some of those 'rights' are burdens too! Gay people are lucky not to bother with them!" Still, I do not see any heterosexual couples lining up to ask the state to strip away their 'burdensome' property, tax, legal, medical, and child-care privileges once they marry. Of course people wish to keep these privileges. How many widows are begging the government to stop paying them their deceased husband's social security benefits!

It is the purpose of the state and federal courts and legislatures to act as neutral and non-religious parties to interpret the state and federal constitutions, and to make laws to protect the rights of all-- minority or majority. The Maine legislature did its just job by granting a minority group equal access to an institution that provides civil and federal benefits to its citizens. Civil rights issues should not be subjected to the popular vote. In fact, all throughout American history most civil rights advances have been the result of court or legislative rulings. In most cases, the court has deemed a group's lack of equal access to certain state and federal institutions (schools, universities, voting, marriage) unconstitutional. If women's rights, property and voting rights for people of color, and equal access to schools and public facilities for minorities had been put to the popular vote, America would still be in the Dark Ages regarding civil rights.

It may be okay for the majority to rule in cases of trash collection, electing representatives, raising taxes, or changing the name of the state, but the popular vote should not determine citizen's access to state and federal benefits. To me, this is a gross injustice. It is especially ironic when people (usually the majority) vote to take away a right from others, that they themselves possess and enjoy! How pompous and self-righteous!

The fact that the United States is a 'Christian' nation is simply a matter of historical consequence. For the sake of example, how would Maine voters feel if the tables were turned? What if Maine suddenly became dominated by an influx of Buddhists? Would the people mind if yoga and meditation practices were instituted in all schools? Would the people mind if the Buddhist majority voted that the state would not recognize any marriage conducted in a Christian church? Of course these propositions seem absurd, yet this is exactly what has occurred in many states.

We are left with the words of the great Thomas Jefferson, who is quoted as writing: "though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression." Amen sister!

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