Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Religion

Religious Liberty in Europe

In a curious case, at least for Europe, the European Court of Human Rights has declared that public institutions, including public schools, have the right to display crucifixes if they wish to. Years ago, the same court banned crucifixes in Italian schools after an atheist parent complained that her children were being subjected to beliefs that they did not subscribe to. At the unyielding urging of the Vatican, the Italian government motioned for an appeal-- which has just been granted. The court has concluded that the mother "had retained in full her right as a parent to enlighten and advise her children and to guide them on a path in line with her own philosophical convictions" and that crucifixes were not a form of indoctrination but a symbol of cultural and national identity. In Europe, seen more and more as a bulwark of radical secularism (France not only having banned crucifixes but burkas as well), it is now legal to publicly acknowledge the role that faith plays in culture, society, and history. One of the supporters of the case mentioned that if the secular tide in Europe continued along its former path, even "God Save the Queen" would be endangered soon and removed as Britain's national anthem.

It is interesting to note that, in addition to the Holy See and Italy, the other countries pushing most fervently to allow crucifixes in classrooms were Poland, Russia, Ukraine, and Bulgaria-- four nations that spent decades under the atheist dominion of Communism, and who subsequently viewed the ban of religious images in public spaces as a form of religious persecution.

In light of this, and as James Madison's birthday was this past week, it is a good time to reflect on Mr. Madison's views on religious liberty. A fervent supporter (and indeed architect) of the "separation between church and state" in our government, it ought to be remembered that the goal of the Founders in that separation was to protect religion from corruption and misuse by government. He adamantly believed that religion was necessary "to the happiness of man" and that a culture that was hostile to religion would soon find itself without protection. The first settlers came to the New World as pilgrims seeking a place where they could worship freely and openly without fear of persecution. From those first pilgrims and the many after to the waves of Catholics and Jews to the arrival of the Eastern religions, America has long been a beacon for those who wish to worship--or, not worship--freely.

Our government, of course, should not get in the business of making laws about religion or favoring with taxes certain sects over others. But is it wrong to recognize the place it plays in our history and our culture? By no means should religion be forced upon people, but neither should it be smothered by their sensitivities. Should people be forced to take religion classes or read the Bible or say prayer in public schools? Of course not. Should they be allowed to express what they believe or to acknowledge the leading role that religion had in the conception of our nation and its traditions? Yes. It is a part of who we are and, at some fundamental level, necessary to truly understand liberty and the responsibilities of liberty. It is an interesting and perhaps troubling time when the Old World now holds more room for religious expression than the New.
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