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KNIGHT: Recalling what freedom of religion meant to the Founders

They wanted to restrain the government, not believers

- The Washington Times - Monday, August 12, 2013

Ever feel like an "outsider?"

If you have, then you have license to stamp out any public activity that you find religiously offensive.

That's the claim advanced by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other groups that have taken a chain saw to the First Amendment. They intend to establish secularist sentiment as the only acceptable public expression.

Like the Soviet Union's commissars and President Obama, they support "the freedom to worship," a cramped view of religious freedom that protects essentially nothing. You can do what you want behind closed doors or inside your head. God help you, though, if you want to have an active faith and exercise your constitutional freedom outside those doors. Since before America's founding, public meetings have opened with prayer. Usually, atheists or people of other faiths who find the mostly Christian prayers meaningless shrug and get on with business.

Increasingly, professional pests like the ACLU and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State are using lawsuits to stamp out freedom of religion.

A key case at the U.S. Supreme Court may help sort things out. In Town of Greece v. Galloway, the town council of the upstate New York town contends that prayers before meetings do not violate the Establishment Clause. They note that George Washington prayed in public and that Congress opens with prayer.

The council has had prayers from various religions, even Wicca, but since most of the prayers are Christian, reflecting the populace, Americans United and the ACLU want the prayers silenced.

To help thread the needle between free exercise and establishment, the American Civil Rights Union (ACRU) is promoting a unique doctrine.

In a brief in the Town of Greece case, ACRU General Counsel Peter Ferrara explains the Coercion Test:

"At the time the First Amendment was adopted, the countries of Europe each maintained their own preferred 'Establishment of Religion,' which meant an official government religion enforced by laws requiring attendance at the official church, regular contributions to it, and other preferences in law for members of that church. These establishment policies all involved government coercion to force citizens to support the one favored church.

"Almost all of the American colonies had such establishments as well, with legal compulsion or coercion as their hallmark.

"These practices, and anything like them involving coercion in regard to religion, are what the framers meant to prohibit in adopting the Establishment Clause, for this is what an Establishment of Religion meant at the time. They did not mean, however, to prohibit any voluntary, public, religious speech, or religious expression or symbolism, which do not involve any such coercion."

Speaking of coercion, the oxymoronically named Military Religious Freedom Foundation, led by anti-Christian zealot Mikey Weinstein, is trying to eradicate religion in the armed forces, muzzling chaplains who won't bless homosexuality.

Seeing the connection between freedom of religion in civilian and military life, the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty has filed a brief in the Town of Greece case: "Our military chaplaincy provides an elegant model, created by the Founders and upheld by the courts, of a respectful accommodation of religious belief," said Ron Crews, the Alliance's executive director.

"A military chaplain, just like a chaplain in a town council meeting, cannot fulfill his or her duties with the federal courts looking over one shoulder and a hypothetical observer looking over the other to assess when a religious activity may make an observer feel like an outsider."

Seeing trouble ahead, Congress added a "Right of Conscience" (Section 533) to the National Defense Authorization Act. When signing the law in January, Mr. Obama declared the religious freedom guarantee "ill-advised and unnecessary."

Really? A base commander in Alaska recently ordered the removal of a website column by Chaplain Lt. Col. Kenneth titled "No Atheists in Foxholes: Chaplains Gave All in World War II." A soldier got reprimanded for serving food from Christian-owned Chick-fil-A and for commenting on federal marriage law at his promotion party. Christian leaders such as Family Research Council President Tony Perkins and Franklin Graham have had military appearances canceled. This is just the tip of an anti-religion iceberg.

England, whose Common Law informed America's ideas about religious freedom, is even further down the road to ruin. A homosexual couple say they will sue to use government power to coerce a church into performing their "wedding."

Barrie Drewitt-Barlow told the Essex Chronicle that despite obtaining a civil union in 2006 with the rights and benefits of marriage, "I am still not getting what I want . It upsets me because I want it so much — a big lavish ceremony, the whole works, I just don't think it is going to happen straight away."

No, the unraveling of a civilization takes time, even when it's proceeding at blinding speed, aided by government coercion.

Robert Knight is senior fellow for the American Civil Rights Union and a columnist for The Washington Times.

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