“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This decree, known as the freedom of religion, is so fundamentally important to a free society that our forefathers forever inscribed it on the first line of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. In spite of their efforts, however, the freedom of religion has become the most abused and misunderstood law of our generation.
As it does every December, the topic of religion is certain to rise to the top of the political heap this time of year. Once the Christmas lights are twinkling, Nativity scenes start sinking under the weight of atheist lawsuits. For some atheist groups, the phrase coined by Thomas Jefferson in a letter, “separation of church and state,” has become a substitution for “Merry Christmas” on their holiday cards. No citizen of this country should be required to either pray or practice any particular religion, our forefathers made certain of that. They were determined to protect this country from becoming another European empire with religions that citizens were required to obey. Before the concept of democracy, kings weren’t merely monarchs, they were often deities who used religion as a weapon and a justification for committing atrocities. The Constitution is meant to safeguard against a theocracy, guarantee the right to practice the religion of a citizen’s choosing, and prevent any one person or group from obstructing that right.
There is another truth, however, that is consistently overlooked. Thomas Jefferson also wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” Our forefathers did not believe that a person’s rights came from any man-made government, but rather from a divine Creator. It was a radical idea at the time, the idea that the petty politics of mankind were ever-changing and ultimately fallible, but it is the basis of every freedom we now enjoy. Jefferson’s words shifted the power of royalty onto the shoulders of the common man, from one ruling class to every person ruling themselves. The Constitution and The Declaration of Independence warn us that when the rights of the minority begin to outweigh the rights of the majority, our country becomes dangerously out of balance. We are currently teetering on that edge, but it’s not too late to adjust our course.
I grew up in a school district where the rights of the majority and the minority were equally respected. We learned equal parts Christmas and Hanukkah songs; Christmas trees and nativity scenes shared wall-space with Stars of David and menorahs. We didn’t have school prayer, but we did have a daily moment of silence where you could either silently pray to the god of your choice or no god at all. Thankfully, one unexpected day that gift of religious tolerance brought me loudly to my feet in defense of an Islamic woman’s right to practice her religion freely. In a world where fully 88 percent of all people believe that some form of God exists, we do a disservice to our children when religious tolerance is excluded from the curriculum of our schools and other public arenas in favor of secular songs and blank walls.
This holiday season, let’s stop using the separation of church and state as a reason to tear down nativity scenes that are, if not personally meaningful to you, at least a part of our country’s culture and tradition. Although I am Christian, I would never expect a beautiful Star of David, statue of Buddha, or rendering of Mohammed to be removed from a public building. Our government is not forcing anyone to worship a god that they don’t believe in, if it were then I would be standing shoulder to shoulder with the American Atheists on the subject. Honoring a people’s beliefs and culture doesn’t have to mean dishonoring another’s.
Every moral human being must ultimately agree upon one imperative — a “golden rule” of compassion and decency in our treatment of each other. Whether to you he is Jesus Christ, Allah, the universe, or nothing at all, those things that bind us together are far greater than those things that rip us apart. In the wise words of Dalai Lama, “Whether one believes in religion or not ... there isn’t anyone who doesn’t appreciate kindness and compassion.” There is no lawsuit that can take away Christmas, there is no lawyer that can change what 88 percent of us believe.
— Tiffany Miller is a Tahoe resident and mother. Visit her website at http://mycrayonbox.org.