The liberty principle for this Freedom Friday concerns the need for us to know our religious rights, freedoms that are protected by the laws of the land. Freedom of religion is under attack more than it has been for many years, and many Americans are afraid to even speak of religion in public settings. It is imperative that all Americans know and understand our rights of religion in order for us to be prepared to defend them.
I shared some information the past two weeks from an article posted by Maurine Proctor. Her article is titled “You Should Know the Answers to these 35 Questions about Religious Freedom.” She takes her 35 questions from a booklet compiled by the International Center for Law and Religion Studies of the Brigham Young University Law School. She quotes their goal as follows: “Our aim is to help everyone understand the scope of religious freedom guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, and to offer suggestions on how to peacefully reconcile the rights of all.”
I shared the answers to questions 1, 3, 4, 5, 7, and 9 the first week because they seemed to go together. Last week I shared the answers to questions 2, 8, 10, 11, and 16. This week I will select a few questions and answers that concern religion and government.
Question #12 asks if elected officials have the right to speak about God. The answer is YES. Elected officials do not lose their “First Amendment right to express their religious beliefs” simply because they were elected to an office. “However, they may not use their official capacity to establish a religion, such as by favoring, promoting, or discriminating against a particular religion.”
Question #13 asks if government meetings may open with prayer. The answer is YES. “So long as the prayers are not used to proselytize or advance any particular faith or belief.” The suggestion is made to invite representatives from various religions to take turns offering generic prayers.
Question #14 asks if the government may “require that government officials or employees belong to a certain religion or believe in God.” The answer is NO.
The government cannot require any kind of religious test as a condition for public office or employment. The government may require people to take an oath of office or make a similar affirmation, but it may not require them to place their hand on the Bible or any other religious book or to use the phrase “so help me God,” although the person can do these things if they wish.
Question #15 asks if local governments may “use zoning laws or other means to keep religious groups out of their communities.” The answer is NO.
Local land use laws, such as zoning ordinances, may not target religious organizations for exclusion, discriminate against them, or place unreasonable burdens on them. An example of a government action that would not be allowed is a zoning ordinance that prohibits places of worship, while allowing non-religious places of assembly for clubs or other associations.
This says that the government cannot use zoning laws to keep religion out of certain areas. However, the neighbors can have some effect. Some years ago The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints built a temple in Anchorage. Before the decision was finalized, Church leaders visited every family in the neighborhoods surrounding the temple – and thus affected by it – to discuss the families concerns about the temple. One of the actions that came out of this approach to the neighbors is that the lights on the temple and in the parking lot are turned off every night at 11:00.
Another local instance happened when the Church wanted to build a meetinghouse. The area was zoned appropriately and the city government gave permission, but the neighbors were concerned about the effect of bringing more people and more traffic into their neighborhood. Church leaders decided to sell the property and build a meetinghouse in an area that was more accepting of religious property.
About ten years ago there was a news article about a man in Texas who owned about 11 acres and some pigs. The farm had been in the man’s family for 200 years when an Islamic association bought the property next door and asked the man with pigs to move. The man was not about to move but decided to fight back. He began holding elaborate pig races on his property every Friday afternoon – “one of the Islamic world’s most holy days.” The neighbors supported the pig farmer and started coming in the hundreds. They were afraid that the mosque would decrease the value of their properties. However, the mosque was built and used. I do not know what has happened over the past ten years.
Question #17 asks if the government may “favor one religion over another.” The answer is NO. “The government may not give special privileges or place special penalties on any specific religion or religious group, or show preference for one religion or religious group, or show preference for one religion over another or for atheism.”
The bottom line is that the government must provide an environment where people can practice their religion according to their choosing. The government must treat every religious organization the same way that it would treat secular organizations