A Response to the Bulverde Prayer Controversy
We’ve all heard the old saying, “the only thing constant in life is change.” Change can be hard at times. Other times, we can be obstinate simply because we just don’t want to change. I can remember arguing that no one had the right to tell me I had to wear a seat belt. Then, I bought a car I really liked that had automatic seat belts. Now I don’t think twice about hitching my seat belt. I wasted a lot of breath and anger over really nothing. That’s what happens when we are set in our ways.
Bulverde is growing and with it comes change. From new roads and stoplights to new neighbors and schools. People from different parts of the state and country are moving into the area. They come with varied backgrounds and religious traditions. We can choose to respect and defend different faith traditions, or we can chose to become obstinate and try to force our religious views on everyone else. Historically, the second type of approach has led to conflict and persecution.
The uproar over religious invocations at the opening of city council meetings is an obvious example that Bulverde is growing and changing. It is also a great opportunity to educate ourselves on the Constitution and what it means to be a true American.
First, we have to remember that in the United States, no government official or politician can tell you which faith to follow. That very personal decision is made by each individual. Without this right to worship or not worship as we see fit, Americans would not be a truly free people.
Unlike many countries around the world, the United States mandates full religious freedom in its Constitution. Amendment I to the Constitution of the United States states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .” The first phrase is known as the “Establishment Clause,” and the second as the “Free Exercise Clause.” Our Founders created a government where true freedom of conscience was protected.
The First Amendment doesn’t simply defend individuals, it defends churches as well from unnecessary interference and intrusion by government. It does so by safeguarding religious symbols, beliefs, and practices from being defined, interpreted, endorsed, or opposed by public officials. Matters of faith should be left to an individual’s conscience, not the pronouncements and actions of government.
The 1st Amendment also protects the political process from being misused to advance sectarian agendas under the guise of legislation. The essence of democracy is that government be representative of all citizens, even those who may belong to religious minorities or to no religion.
Thomas Jefferson, our nation’s third president and author of the Declaration of Independence, said that the American people through the First Amendment have built a “wall of separation between church and state.” Although we sometimes take this vital right for granted, visionary thinkers fought long and hard to win this freedom. They had witnessed not only what state religions had done in Europe, but also right here in the colonies.
Early American colonies made some denominations their official state religions, and those who dissented were jailed, exiled, or even executed. The Founders understood only too well that in order to have strong, vibrant churches, government needed to stay out of the religion business and religion needed to stay out of government business. Today, we have over 2,000 faith groups and denominations active in the United States.
This brings me back to the issue of invocations before Bulverde City Council meetings. Bulverde still falls under the jurisdiction of the Constitution, which makes it clear that government cannot favor one particular religious belief over others, or religion over non-religion. That’s the only way to ensure that Americans from all faith backgrounds, and none, feel included in their communities.
Most American religious leaders appreciate the protections guaranteed by our Constitution. They have no desire to see any religion, including their own, favored by the government. Only a small – but vocal and well-organized – minority questions our heritage of religious liberty and campaigns to see their faith enshrined in law.
America is exceptional because it keeps church and state separate. A true American respects people of all faiths and non-faiths. City Council is the most basic form of government. Prayer belongs in churches and homes and other appropriate venues. It does not belong in government.