Religion in the American Public Square: An Islamic Perspective

By Ismail Royer

Originally published March 5, 2003

 
Once upon a time, the diverse town of Jersey City, New Jersey marked
Christmas, Hanukah, Ramadan, and the Hindu New Year with public
pronouncements, signs, parades and displays at City Hall. The
celebrations ended after the city was sued, and lost, on the grounds
that its official acknowledgment of these holidays violated the
Constitution. As Muslims, should we have agreed with the city or with
the court?

The First Amendment states that government may not make laws
“respecting an establishment of religion.” There is controversy over
whether those words, known as the “Establishment Clause,” should be
interpreted to mean that government may not promote one religion over
another, or to mean that belief in God should be stripped from
official expression altogether. Court decisions in recent years have
tended to favor the latter interpretation.

As we see with the Jersey City example, the question of which position
should prevail is not simply theoretical; whether or not the pendulum
of judicial interpretation eventually swings toward accommodation of
religious expression will have a broad effect on Americans of all
faiths, including Muslims. Some of the issues in the news that flow
directly from this question are government funding of faith-based
social service organizations, the presence of student-initiated
religion in public schools, school vouchers, and the display of
religious material on or by government facilities.

The legal arguments of both camps have been laid out elsewhere, so
rather than address them, we shall instead attempt to locate between
the two a position that best reflects Islam’s values and priorities.

Achieving neutrality

The courts have tended to interpret the Establishment Clause as
meaning that the state should be neutral, not on the question of which
religion is correct, but on the question of whether God exists at all.
Thus, wrote Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, government may not “pass
laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion
over another.”

At the root of the notion that state neutrality between belief and
disbelief is somehow fairer than neutrality between beliefs is the
assumption that disbelief is man’s default nature, the lowest common
denominator between us all. Thus, it is thought, it is less oppressive
for a religious person that God’s name be stripped from official
expression than for an irreligious person to hear mention of His name,
since acknowledgment and remembrance of God is an unessential part of
our being.

Considering the presence of religion in nearly every human society
throughout history, this assumption is false on its face. It also
violates the spirit of the Establishment Clause, since it asserts an
ultimate truth-that God does not exist-and establishes it as an
official belief system over the belief in God.

Banishing religion from the public square does not result in a vacuum,
but in the monopoly of irreligion. A recent episode of the Fox
television network cartoon “King of the Hill” featured a character at
school taking part in a mock trial, forced to swear on a Harry Potter
book since the Bible had been banned from schools-something, after
all, had to take the scripture’s place. The lesson: an extreme wall of
separation between religion and state is impracticable to the point of
absurdity.

Discrimination?

Since Christianity is the predominant religion in America, it can be
assumed that if a more accommodating interpretation of the
Establishment Clause prevails, official expressions of Christianity
will outnumber those of other religions. It is argued that this
scenario is necessarily bad for Muslims, Jews, and other minorities,
and that the current interpretation of the Establishment Clause
provides relief from discrimination.

The result of that interpretation, however, is that observant Muslims
are discriminated against, along with religious people of all faiths.
A Muslim student in Ann Arbor, Michigan, was publicly reprimanded by
her community college instructor for beginning her class presentation
with the words, “In the name of God.” The teacher cited “separation of
church and state,” told the student that the words were “inappropriate
and unacceptable in an American classroom,” and threatened to prevent
her from giving future presentations if she repeated the phrase.

In 1990, the US Court of Appeals, Third Circuit, ruled on the basis of
the Establishment Clause that the Philadelphia public school system
was correct in firing a Muslim teacher because she wore a hijab, a
headscarf worn by women as part of Islam’s emphasis on modesty. In
ruling for the state, the court upheld a Pennsylvania law requiring
the termination of instructors who wear religious garb. The law was
originally enacted in 1895 to prevent Catholic nuns from teaching in
public schools, and has also been invoked to force Jewish teachers to
remove their yarmulkes.

When it banned prayer in school in 1962, the Supreme Court wrote that
when “the power, prestige and financial support of government is
placed behind a particular religious belief, the indirect coercive
pressure upon religious minorities to conform to the prevailing
officially approved religion is plain.” Since the courts have enforced
irreligion as the officially approved religion, religious
minorities-indeed, people of all faiths-have felt a coercive pressure
to conform to it.

Realistically speaking, in the very worst-case scenario, government
accommodation of religious expression in this majority Christian
nation might indeed result in some cases of pressure on religious
minorities. That situation would be no worse than the current pressure
to conform to irreligion, and Muslims would then at least have a legal
standing on which to argue for their right to religious expression.

Furthermore, from an Islamic perspective, the likelihood that
Christian expression would, for demographic reasons, outnumber that of
other faiths, is not a valid objection to broader government
accommodation of religious expression. Islam does not hold that if it
is not the prevailing religion of a society, then irreligion must
prevail. Islam considers Christianity a revealed religion, vastly
preferring it to atheism, even considering atheism a form of
polytheism, as it attributes God’s power to other than Him. And the
Qur’an tells Muslims:

“And nearest among them in love to the Believers (in Islam), you will
find those who say, ‘We are Christians’: because among these are men
devoted to learning. And men who have renounced the world, and they
are not arrogant.”

Religion, law, and society

In some quarters, religion has a bad reputation. Certainly history
testifies to the way in which faith has been misused to subjugate,
humiliate, and colonize. Considering the cruelty of the anti-religious
Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, however, we realize that religion has no
monopoly on atrocity. To paraphrase a slogan: religions don’t kill
people, people kill people. On balance, religion’s positive
contributions to society far outweigh the negative.

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche observed that traditional
morality (which he despised) could not exist absent a belief in God.
He declared that “God is dead,” and instead urged man to live by
“appropriation, injury, overpowering of what is alien and weaker;
suppression, hardness…exploitation.” This idea became the foundation
of German fascism.

It is not true that all people who do not believe in God behave
immorally, or that all people who believe in God behave morally.
Founding father Gouverneur Morris was correct, however, when he
observed, “religion is the only solid basis of good morals.” Law is
codified morality, and a society built upon law artificially divorced
from religion and unrestrained by consciousness of a higher authority
runs the risk of adopting characteristics of Nietzsche’s social
darwinism.

Aside from providing the ethical and moral framework of society,
religion tends to inculcate in its adherents the conviction that they
must refrain from illegal and immoral activity because they are
ultimately accountable for their actions, regardless of whether they
are caught by worldly authorities. Religion contributes to a strong
family unit, the building block of society; it fosters an economic
safety net by encouraging charity, and provides a source of strength
for those recovering from addiction to alcohol, drugs, gambling, and
other social diseases.

Conclusion

In reality, there is nothing neutral about banishing the mention of
God’s name from official expression; doing so asserts a certain truth
about the nature of man, the universe, and God’s existence.
Accommodating religion is not the same thing as establishing an
official religion.

Islam does not require the protection of irreligion to shield Muslims
from encountering other religions in the public square. While it
cannot be pretended that incidents of discrimination might not occur
under a more flexible interpretation of the Establishment Clause, it
would be no worse for religious minorities than the discrimination
that occurs from the refusal to accommodate religion now.

The contribution of religion to law, ethics, and social stability
cannot be ignored, and is an asset for any society. Government can
allow religion’s positive effects to be maximized by ceasing to
interfere with its free expression, and joining hands with religious
people in appropriate ways to help tackle some of society’s worst
problems.

Muslims should join the call for an interpretation of the Constitution
that accommodates religion, rather than stifles it, and support
initiatives that would tend to promote religiosity in public life.

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