Excluding Religion from Public Life is Tricky


Protestant conservatives of the Religious Right variety may be surprised to know that the strongest arguments for undressing the public square (of religious garments) came from Protestants. Whenever Roman Catholics wanted public funds or support for parochial schools, from the 1830s to the 1950s Protestants invariably responded by insisting on the separation of church and state. In other words, Protestants generally crafted the arguments that Supreme Court justices would use eventually to exclude religion from public schools. If support for parochial schooling was an illegitimate establishment of religion, how could prayer and Bible reading in public schools be construed as anything but another instance of using public funds to support a particular religion in a public institution?

A similar dynamic is emerging as legislators in the United States look for ways to prevent the implementation of Sharia Law. Perhaps with the history of their own church in mind, a Roman Catholic public policy group in Michigan was astute to notice an important defect in a recently proposed piece of legislation:

The Michigan Catholic Conference, citing a potential impact on Catholic canon law, is speaking out against a bill in the Michigan House of Representatives that would prohibit the application of foreign law in Michigan.

The legislation, House Bill 4769, is primarily aimed at prohibiting Muslim Sharia law in the state, but Michigan Catholic Conference President and CEO Paul Long said the bill also could have an adverse effect on canon law, which is the juridical structure that facilitates life and governance in the Catholic Church.

Canon law governs aspects of Catholic life such as church structure and authority, doctrine, the appointment of pastors, the care of objects used in sacred worship, and rules regulating Catholic parishes and schools. In a news release, the MCC said canon law in many cases predates and is even the basis of some civil laws in the western world.

“Any measure that could have the impact of interfering with the internal life of the Catholic Church shall be viewed as an attack on religious liberty itself and must be opposed,” Long said. “It is the hope of the Michigan Catholic Conference that discussions pertaining to this legislation will foster a deeper awareness of and appreciation for religious liberty and the contributions religious communities make to the common good of society.”

In a replay of earlier culture wars, some evangelical Protestants have been hostile to a Muslim presence in the United States. But at least some Christians can see through religious differences to the consequences of legislation aimed at religion. Maybe if evangelicals regarded the Bible as a foreign book (which it is since none of its authors were American), they might see how restricting other religions ultimately restricts theirs.

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