House Subcommittee Takes Up Public Expression of Religion
As a first-time intern in DC, I have been astonished with the sheer quantity of things to do and see. Leaders in a city of leaders are always looking for a crowd to share their thoughts. Many of these opportunities have a great deal to do with our work at Faith in Public Life, so we will be taking advantage of these Washington resources by attending and offering our analyses.
Yesterday morning, Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH) chaired a hearing on a bill regarding the public expression of religion. This issue, a favorite used by some religious conservatives to label those who disagree with their agenda as anti-God, has been brought to the House of Representatives by Rep. John Hostettler (R-IN) with H.R. 2679, the Public Expression of Religion Act of 2005, or PERA.
Current law allows for people to file suit against state and local governments for alleged constitutional violations of the Establishment Clause in the 1st Amendment; i.e. the 10 Commandments in public courthouses or school prayer. Also, if court affirms a violation has occurred, the individual’s attorney fees are to be paid by the offending authority. PERA would change two aspects of the law: 1) only injunctive relief would be permitted in these cases (10 Commandments need to be taken down, but no monetary award), and 2) the attorney fee-shifting would be eliminated. Individuals would need to pay their legal fees even if the court finds a violation has been committed.
Though testimonies and debate focused on the legal procedures, it is apparent that the intent of the bill was to allow more leeway for religion in the public sphere and to take power away from those who claim to be offended by it. This debate asks a question that our organization, Faith in Public Life, and ourselves, as people of faith, are confronted with continually. What is the appropriate relationship of religious belief in politics and the public sphere? It is discouraging to watch as some individuals exploit faith for political gain by focusing on only a couple sensational issues; and we recognize the danger of a religious majority imposing its beliefs on others. However, we simultaneously believe faith has an important role in building a public conscience and enacting social justice.
We have tried to show that concerned religious individuals have already started to answer these questions. Take a look at our Faith Issues Resources, where you can find links to several resources and voices of faith on this issue of church and state. Several of those voices are highlighted in our Media Speakers Bureau, which includes Melissa Rogers, visiting professor of religion and public policy at Wake Forest University Divinity School and the founder and director of its Center for Religion and Public Affairs (check out her article Religious Freedom For All: Why the Supreme Court is right and the Family Research Council is wrong about religious freedom); K. Hollyn Hollman and Rev. J. Brent. Walker of the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty, which works to further the Baptist heritage that champions the principle that religion must be neither advanced nor inhibited by government; Rev. Dr. Welton Gaddy, President of the Interfaith Alliance and host of State of Belief, which is based on the proposition that religion has a positive and healing role to play in the life of the nation; and Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
Use these resources to learn how people of faith are integrating religion and public life in a meaningful way — without violating the lines that separate religion and government — to promote the common good.