Commentary

05.23.14

Separation Between Church & State Still Exists. Some Seem to Forget.

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Last week I spoke to a group in Oxford, Ohio — a beautiful town in a rural area of southwest Ohio. I drove through several small towns down winding state routes, including Eaton, Ohio, where I was overwhelmed by the town seal painted on a giant water tower. The seal includes a large cross with what I assume is a Bible. My first thought was, non-Christians are not welcome here . . . or at least non-Christians must deal with government promotion of one religion in this town.

The recent Supreme Court decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway was disappointing. Although the majority views ceremonial prayer as neutral with respect to religion, when local government includes religion in proceedings it affects citizens on a very personal level.

This decision is limited to local governmental meetings and does not allow the government to control the content of the religious message given. Prayer is okay for ceremonial purposes only, not as part of official government business. The decision also does not allow government officials or public school officials to start promoting and endorsing prayer.

While religion is rooted in our nation’s history, local governments should not express religious preferences. Thomas Jefferson said there is “a wall of eternal separation between church & state.” Some people seem to think this wall has holes in it. They think the wall can be removed from certain areas of government. That is offensive to the First Amendment and true religious freedom. We generally have the right to practice religion however we choose. We do not have the right to proselytize and push religion through means of government power.

The Ohio legislature recently tried to provide a free pass to discriminate. The Ohio Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), H.B. 376, was indefinitely postponed right after Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoed a similar bill that would be bad for Arizona businesses. Ohio’s bill would be just as bad.

Businesses would be between a rock and a hard place when employees use religious beliefs as an excuse to mistreat customers or ignore work rules. RFRA would have allowed religious employees to opt out of performing duties or providing required services, which creates an extra burden on other employees.Business branding could be affected when customers receive an inconsistent experience and employees are acting contrary to company policy. Ultimately, businesses would either be forced to discriminate against patrons (making them vulnerable to litigation, and damaging customer relations) or be sued under the Ohio RFRA when they attempt to discipline religious employees who are ignoring the rules.

While the bill is defeated for now, we will sadly see something similar introduced again. Be on the lookout for such legislation that promotes discrimination.

The ACLU has worked for decades to protect true religious liberty. We have fought too hard for too long to allow individuals to be given a free pass to violate the basic civil rights of others and ignore laws they don’t wish to follow.

Learn more by taking our Religious Liberties Quiz!

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