Rolling Back Religious Liberty: Virginia Group Attacks Church-State Separation

"Strehle suggests that a secular government is hostile to religion. Nothing could be farther from the truth." –J. Brent Walker

Does the Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty need updating?

As many of you probably know, the Virginia Statute, approved by the state legislature in 1786, ended the Anglican Established Church and guaranteed broad freedom of religion in the commonwealth for the first time.

In ringing language written by Thomas Jefferson, the Statute proclaimed that "no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever."

A small group of misguided religious leaders in Virginia seems to think they can improve on Jefferson's work.

In an op-ed in today's Washington Times, Stephen Strehle argues that the U.S. Supreme Court erred in 1947 when it upheld Jefferson's wall of separation between church and state. Strehle, a religion and philosophy professor at Christopher Newport University, says the Everson v. Board of Education decision treats religion as "some alien force, needing exorcism" from public life.

Strehle and some friends have formed a group to press for a New Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Their measure would make it state policy to afford religious people "access to public institutions...inviting them to interpret their faith and provide spiritual and moral guidance in determining its laws and actions." It also calls for the state to "represent the faith of the people through public symbols and ceremonies."

Jefferson would be appalled at this impertinent and intemperate move. The Sage of Monticello believed a high wall of separation between religion and government is absolutely essential to safeguard religious freedom for everyone. He reflected that viewpoint in his landmark Statute, which became the predecessor of the First Amendment. He would never approve of a government based on religion, as this group seems to want.

Prof. Strehle, you're no Thomas Jefferson! Leave his Statute alone.

Strehle and company have a fundamental misunderstanding of the Supreme Court's church-state philosophy and a ludicrous take on the current role of religion in American life.

The justices have never restricted the freedom of believers (or non-believers) to share their various perspectives about religion with others. The court's decisions have simply barred the government from funding religion or coercing people about matters of faith.

Just as wrong-headed is the idea that religion has been banished from public life. President Barack Obama has frequently mentioned the role of faith in his life. Other public officials do the same. Religious groups of all kinds lobby in Washington and the state capitols to press for their views on how government should operate. Religious voices are heard regularly on radio and television, and houses of worship of every stripe exist on every corner.

Fortunately, respected religious voices are coming forward to refute the New Statute crowd. For example, J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty, says Strehle is "way off base."

Writing in the Religious Herald, Walker asserts, "The First Amendment requires, and we should be happy to embrace, a secular government to the extent that it is prohibited from promoting religion or taking sides in religious disputes, favoring one over another. It should and must be neutral toward religion. Strehle suggests that a secular government is hostile to religion. Nothing could be farther from the truth."

Walker urges Baptists and others not to be "foolish enough to fiddle with Mr. Jefferson's statute. Let's not try to fix something that is not broken."

That's exactly right.