Daniel J.H. Greenwood

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Freedom of Religion In Utah

Salt Lake Tribune, Jan 17, 1993

Two hundred years ago, the founders of this nation ended centuries of religious conflicts by resolving to separate religion from politics. Nearly a century ago, the authors of this state's constitution did the same. Now the Utah Legislature is reconsidering the issue. It should maintain our existing freedoms.

The central issue in the public prayer debate is political exclusion -- shall this state return to the medieval European practice of restricting citizenship rights to only adherents of a particular faith or faiths, or shall it continue to guarantee equal rights to all its inhabitants?

Prayer at public ceremonies sends a simple message: Only those whose prayer is prayed are full members of the public. If the prayer be Mormon, it excludes non-Mormons. If Christian, it says to Jews, 54 years after Kristallnacht, you may not be required to wear the yellow star, but you still are not full members of this community. Non-sectarian prayer, if such a thing is possible, excludes both unbelievers, those with no religion, and sectarians, those of us who take our religion seriously, who cannot pray indifferently to the Virgin or the Vishnu.

Utah today includes citizens with every religious belief. Some of us are monotheists, others trinitarians, polytheists or atheists.

Political, public prayer necessarily says to some or all of us that we are not full and equal members of the political community, that we are not part of the public.

The Legislature should preserve our political unity and our religious freedom by preserving religion separate from politics. As the current state constitution recognizes, our freedom as citizens to be religious, to practice our many and various religions, depends on public, state functions remaining free from religion.

This state was founded by a persecuted minority seeking refuge and freedom to practice its own religion and to live according to its own belief. That heritage, strikingly parallel to the heritage of the United States as a whole and to the heritage of generation after generation and family after family of later immigrants, imposes a special obligation to avoid persecuting others as our founders and ancestors, be they LDS, Puritans, Huguenots, Jews, Greeks or Cambodians, were persecuted.

Only by removing religion from the sphere of collective decision-making can we avoid repeating the tragic and terrible crimes of the past. On this, the 500th anniversary of the expulsion of the Jews by Christian Spain, let us not forget, or place ourselves in danger of repeating, the great crimes that have been committed in the name of religion generally and Christianity specifically.

No one sect has a monopoly on truth, decency, morality or the loyalty of our fellow Utahns. Let us, then, resolve that majority rule has no place in matters of conscience and leave to each of us the freedom to practice our religion without governmental interference.

The constitutional bar on publicly mandated prayer is essential to allow citizens -- as private citizens, not governmental officials -- to pray in any manner they see fit. Publicly mandated prayer, in contrast, necessarily violates that right since, by its very nature, it requires that the government mandate the content of the prayer that is given. That is bad for religions, which are inevitably drawn into the political process of compromise or, if they seek to maintain an unadulterated vision of their truth, into the wars of non-compromise, and bad for government, which should treat its citizens equally without returning to the evil of religious discrimination.

The issue is principally whether one religious group shall be allowed to impose its practices and preferences on others, equally Americans, whose heritage is different. I do not ask you to observe the Sabbath, to bar forbidden foods, to chant with me the Shm'a that Hillel declaimed as the imperial government flayed him for refusing to bow down to the state's official gods, or even to light the menorah that symbolizes the expulsion of the foreign government from the temple; do not force me to participate in rituals that for a Jew must symbolize above all not morality but centuries of ghettos, pogroms and religiously inspired oppression.

Only America, of all the spiritual descendants of Christian Europe, has succeeded in avoiding religious war, because only we have succeeded in separating religion from the political sphere. Let us preserve, not destroy, that precious heritage. Leave the Utah Constitution alone.


Today's Common Carrier author is Daniel J.H. Greenwood, associate professor at the University of Utah College of Law, Salt Lake City, Utah 84112. The article is based largely on the the author's testimony before the Legislature's committee on religious liberty. It expresses his personal views.