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FORBES: America’s new government-imposed religion

‘Wall of separation’ is blocking practice of faith

- - Friday, February 8, 2013

Catholic adoption agencies have been forced to close their doors in Illinois, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., because their religious beliefs about marriage were deemed unacceptable by their jurisdictions.

A graduate student in Michigan was expelled from a counseling program because her religious beliefs about marriage were deemed unacceptable by school officials.

Christian pharmacists in Illinois were told to find other professions because their religious beliefs regarding when life begins were deemed unacceptable by the state.

Private business owners are facing enormous fines because their beliefs about when life begins have been deemed unacceptable by the federal government.

Pastor Louie Giglio did not deliver the closing prayer at President Obama's inauguration ceremony because his religious beliefs about marriage were deemed unacceptable by the administration.

In January, our nation celebrated Religious Freedom Day, commemorating the anniversary of the passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, in which Thomas Jefferson wrote, "Be it enacted by the General Assembly, that no man shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion."

Compared with others around the world, people of faith in America enjoy extraordinary freedoms. Our lives are not in danger. We do not face imprisonment or torture for holding unpopular convictions.

Yet when people of faith are restricted from fully participating in society -- owning businesses, entering the medical profession or providing much-needed charitable services -- an intolerable trade-off has occurred. The government has exceeded its boundary, and the figurative wall between church and state must be strengthened.

Our government is powerless without "the consent of the governed." This uniquely American design, explicit in the founding document of the United States, was devised in part to ensure that unless an individual consents, the government may not force him to violate the sacred relationship between him and his God. This freedom of conscience was secured in the First Amendment, guaranteeing that Americans could exercise their faith without government interference.

What resulted was an unprecedented melting pot of thoughts, beliefs and ideas. The success of the American experiment was evidenced by the immigrants drawn to our shores in search of this shining beacon of tolerance, this refuge where individuals could freely live out their convictions without fear of government retribution.

Thomas Jefferson recognized the sacrosanct relationship between God and man when he penned a letter to the Danbury Baptists in 1802, coining the "wall of separation between Church and State." The Baptists had written to the newly elected president expressing concern that religious freedoms were being treated by the state of Connecticut "as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights."

Jefferson's response fell wholly on the side of religious freedom: "I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church and State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties."

Two hundred years later, this important concept has been distorted into a tool used to sanitize school classrooms, war memorials and courtrooms of references to faith. Its misapplication has led the public to believe that Jefferson's intent was to confine religion to the four walls of the church. Context reveals, however, that Jefferson's wall actually was meant to constrain the government, ensuring religious freedoms are treated as "inalienable rights" rather than "favors granted."

The tide has turned, and we have begun to see the emergence of a state-created orthodoxy. It deems support for traditional marriage unacceptable. It discredits those who believe that life begins at conception. It disfavors their faith -- held for centuries by their predecessors -- and creates a regulatory framework to prevent them from fully participating in the public square.

When the government says, "You can believe whatever you want, but you will be penalized if you exercise those beliefs," we have entered dangerous territory. We cannot allow a religious litmus test to determine who may participate in American life. We must defend the Constitution not only in form, but also in effect.

Rep. J. Randy Forbes is a Virginia Republican.