Ah, but for that pesky Constitution thing…

“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man & his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, 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.”

Thomas Jefferson – letter to the Danbury Baptists, Jan 1, 1802

Just in case the First Amendment to the Consitution of the United States is somehow not clear enough for some of the more extreme members of some state legislatures (and the occasional governor), Thomas Jefferson made the intent very clear in numerous writings, but perhaps none quite so eloquently as the passage above (& yes, I’ve used it before and almost certainly will again). The First Amendment, like all of the amendments, is quite short and not at all ambiguous as it covers the freedoms of religion, expression, assembly, and petitioning of the government (at all levels). You have these rights. We all have these same rights:

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.

To begin with, it’s important to bear in mind that my rights do not trump yours, just as yours do not trump mine. I understand that some feel that their religion is always right, and therefore that which falls outside of those parameters is not only wrong – it’s an abomination. But quite frankly, from a legal perspective, within the United States of America, that is an irrelevancy. We all have the right to worship, or not, as we choose. We do not have the right to impose our religious views on others. And it is not a form of persecution to insist that you respect the rights of others to live their lives as they see fit when they are just peacefully moving through life. Jefferson also noted “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

I bring this up, of course because Tennessee, home of the infamous Scopes trial, has passed a bill naming the Bible as the official State Book. Unconstitutional? Of course. Their attorney general strongly advised against it last year, even their governor has reservations about signing it because it is unconstitutional. Both at the federal and the state level. And if the governor does not sign the bill, the state legislature is very likely to override the veto. And there will be lawsuits, and Tennessee will lose them. And spend a lot of money defending something that should not be defended. Because it simply should not have been done.

And perhaps more disturbingly, Mississippi, has enacted a “Religious Freedom” bill terrifying in its scope. It explicitly allows pretty much ANY from of discrimination done in the name of sincerely held religious beliefs. Up to and including, same-sex sex (the real target here) and unmarried sex. And clothing. And essentially everything else that might make it possible for you to shop – or find somewhere to live – if you somehow offend the sincerely held religious beliefs of  the person or business that you are attempting to transact with, work for, or rent from.  Even potentially abusive behavior from foster parents will be difficult to stop under the provisions of this law (full text here). Yes, that’s really how far Mississippi has chosen to go. The “Christian Taliban” in action. Constitutional? No, not really, but it certainly will cost an already broke state a great deal of money to defend itself when the lawsuits start. As they most certainly will. And as a state that ranks behind most other states by almost every important measure you really would have thought that the legislature had something better to do – but apparently not. Which may explain why the state ranks dead last in education. And has nearly the highest rate of teen pregnancy (only 1/2 point behind the loser).

We seem to spend a lot of time lately in this country lamenting the inflexibility of Islam, and the complete intolerance of any other way of thinking or acting other than that which the Koran, and its interpreters throughout the centuries, have decreed. Extreme – oh absolutely. So is Ultra-Orthodox Judaism. And so is Fundamentalist Christianity. We have begun racing down a path from which we will have trouble returning unless more tolerant, more thoughtful, people pursue public office. By allowing the media to keep us continually focused on Washington, we have all lost track of what was going on at a local level. And in the end, that is far more important because it is where we live, work, and hope to educate our children.

Protect me from those that are certain they alone know the absolute truth.


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