Protecting Your Right to Religious Belief

By Hank Zumach

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

This is the wording of the very first protection written into the Bill of Rights by the writers of the U.S. Constitution. It was no accident that they chose to give the issue precedence, even before freedom of speech, the press, assembly or to petition the government. Centuries of religious wars in Europe, caused when the leaders of one country tried to force their religion onto neighboring countries, were fresh in their minds. They knew most of the colonies in the New World were founded by members of various sects that had come here to escape persecution in Europe. The writers of the Constitution also knew these colonists quickly wrote laws allowing them to persecute members of other sects.

What many present day citizens apparently misunderstand is that the Founders had spent a great deal of time debating the role that religion should have in the new government and their decision was to not use the words “God” or “Jesus” or “Bible” or “Christian” or any other religious references anywhere in the Constitution. Instead, it was decided to create the framework for laws that would, as Thomas Jefferson wrote, “(b)uild a wall of separation” between the two great powers of church and state.

Another misunderstanding of many people is the belief that the Bill of Rights guarantees the freedom of (their) religion. They do not realize that before people can have the freedom of their religion, they must first be free from having the religious beliefs of others forced upon them.

In spite of this, throughout our country’s history, there has been a stream of attempts by some religious groups to impose their beliefs and practices on others. These attempts have often involved the intentional misuse of power by government officials. And so, in 1947, Americans United for Separation of Church and State was founded by a broad coalition of religious, educational and civic leaders. It may be important for some readers to know that the membership of Americans United continues to include people from a wide range of religious beliefs. The Rev. Barry Lynn, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, has been the executive director since 1992. People who would like to have more information about Americans United can e-mail one of the addresses below.

Because in recent years there have been several cases in the

La Crosse area involving violations of the principle of separation of church and state, it was decided by board of directors of the Wisconsin chapter of Americans United to sponsor a billboard during the months of January and February. It is on Third Street, just south of Cass Street, in downtown La Crosse Its message is simple and direct:

Constitutional Separation of Church and State

The Best Friend Religion Ever Had

Protect It and It Will Protect You

These are ideas and principles that should be supported by everyone, regardless of their religious beliefs. If we as citizens do that, we will have finally accomplished what the writers of the Bill of Rights intended.

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