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Please Don’t Take Offense

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
In spring, bicycles come out of storage, newspaper photographers snap pictures of people riding them, and those photos generate letters of complaint to The Washington Post

“You do both bikers and wannabes a great disservice in illustrating this article with a photograph of a biker who is not wearing a helmet,” wrote a correspondent on May 19 . "This isn't the first time The Post has done this. Please give more consideration to issues of safety and awareness." A week later, a different writer added, “I would appreciate that The Post (in addition to publishing the helmet comments that have been made previously) convey the safest riding practices."

Notice that the writers aren’t simply complaining that there are riders out there who’re not wearing helmets. These readers simply don’t want others to see people riding without helmets.

A similar thing happens with religious liberty. Some activists don’t want to be exposed to religion in any form, so they’re trying to eliminate any religious displays.

Recall the words of the First Amendment :“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Let’s note that the Founding Fathers wanted to guarantee the free exercise of religion, so they enshrined freedom of religion in the Constitution. The First Amendment ensures there will be no official, state supported “Church of America.” They’d seen the way the Church of England could stifle freedom, and they wanted no part of that.

But while the First Amendment protects freedom
of religion, it doesn’t provide freedom from religion. Sadly, though, that seems to be how many want to read the First Amendment.

For example, In the “Mt. Soledad Cross” case, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit found that the federal government could not acquire and maintain a war memorial that included a cross honoring veterans. The court believed that such a display violated the Constitution’s prohibition on Congress respecting an establishment of religion.

To its credit, the Obama administration disagrees. “The decision below, if permitted to stand, calls for the government to tear down a memorial cross that has stood for 58 years as a tribute to fallen service members,” the Justice Department wrote in a brief asking the Supreme Court to overturn the Ninth Circuit ruling. “Nothing in the Establishment Clause compels that result, because the Establishment Clause does not require eradication of all religious symbols in the public realm."

The Supreme Court has decided not to hear the case at this time, turning the issue back over to lower courts. But even Solicitor Gen. Donald Verrilli Jr. says that if the cross must be removed, the case "unnecessarily fosters the very divisiveness” about religion that the Constitution intended to prevent.

There are other recent challenges to religious freedom.

Frank Buono filed a lawsuit some years ago requesting that an 8-foot tall cross in the Mojave Desert be removed because he “claims to be offended by the presence of a religious symbol on federal land.” The cross is part of national memorial to the 300,000-plus American soldiers who were killed in World War I.

Buono’s case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which shot him down by a 5-4 margin. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority that the Constitution’s Establishment Clause “does not require eradication of all religious symbols in the public realm.”

Note how close that vote was. As legal expert Brian Walsh (then at The Heritage Foundation) wrote at the time, “If the Court had affirmed the Ninth Circuit’s extreme decision, it would have opened the door to legal challenges eliminating Stars of David, crosses, and similar religious symbols found, for example, on soldiers’ graves in Arlington National Cemetery and every other federal cemetery.”

As long as there have been humans, they seem to have always worshipped a god or gods of some kind. The genius of the Founders was in allowing people to worship any faith (or no faith) as long as they “demean themselves as good citizens,” as George Washington phrased it in a letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, R.I.

It bears repeating: Americans enjoy freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. Trying to obtain it is a misreading of the Constitution, and a waste of time and energy to boot.

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