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 1-17 in previous weeks. This week I will share some questions and answers about religion on government property. Question #18 asks if government property must be religion-free. The answer is NO. This answer is quite interesting in light of what has been happening in the United States in recent years.
Government property need not be free of religious references, symbols, or messages, so long as the government does not appear to endorse any specific religion. Whether a particular display is constitutional depends heavily on the particular circumstances.
Temporary displays (such as holiday displays), may contain religious elements if the display, taken as a whole, does not promote a religious message or indicate government endorsement of religion. For example, a Nativity scene together with non-religious holiday symbols, such as Santa Claus and candy canes, would probably be allowed, but a Nativity scene standing alone would not be.
Permanent displays (such as monuments) may contain religious element if the purpose and primary effects of the display are secular – in other words, if a reasonable observer would not believe the government means to endorse a particular religion.
Communities may experiment with Christmas decorations and put a kneeling Santa worshipping the Baby Jesus. Of course, any such display would not be “authentic,” but the message could come through loud and clear.
Question #19 asks if individuals and religious organizations may “use government property for religious expressions and activities.” The answer is YES.
In general, the government must provide religious groups the same access to public facilities that it provides for other types of groups. For example, a state university that hosts a variety of student activities may not exclude a religious student group simply because it is religious, although certain other restrictions may apply.
Some years ago our meetinghouse burned, and we could not use it for a couple of years or so. We met in the local high school for our Sunday meetings. We were grateful that the school district allowed us to use the school. I understand that the district has since changed its rules.
Question #20 asks if government employees may “wear religious dress or symbols to work.” The answer is YES. “All employees generally have the ability to believe and act consistently with deeply-held religious beliefs while in the workplace, subject to some narrow limitations. Government employees may enjoy these rights as well.”
Question #21 asks if “public schools have to be religion free.” The answer is NO. In light of all the problems on government-owned college campuses, this answer is quite interesting.
Public schools and universities must be neutral toward religion; they can’t favor it or be hostile to it. Schools have a duty to accommodate a student’s exercise of religion unless it is disruptive to discipline or interferes with the rights of others. Schools may teach about religion in an academic, neutral, non-denominational way. Schools may not sponsor “religious speech.” For example, school-sponsored prayers or devotional scripture readings during the school day or at school events are inappropriate.
I understand that some schools are pushing this line quite a lot. An example would be schools that provide a special room for Muslims to hold their prayers. I believe that this practice is the same as a school providing a room for other students to practice their religions. Many schools allow for “released time” when students can go to another building to hold a religious class. They do not get high school credit for attending the religion class, but they are allowed to attend.
As we can readily see, there are many religious practices that can take place on government property. The government must remain neutral in each case and do nothing that would promote or deny any particular religion.