North Idaho College political scientist Tony Stewart says he’s a student of the U.S. Constitution – he’s also been teaching it to college students for 38 years. And he’s saddened by the lack of understanding of the nation’s founding document’s groundbreaking provisions on religious freedom.
There are three: The free expression clause in the 1st Amendment, which protects the right of all individuals to practice any or no religion; the establishment clause in the 1st Amendment, which makes us a nation without an official state-sanctioned religion; and Article 6, which says there can be no religious test for office.
Stewart noted that over the course of history, other nations have followed different paths, from endorsing a state religion and persecuting all non-members, to the Soviet Union’s example of opposing religion and persecuting people for practicing all faiths. “What we’ve come up with that’s so precious is to make that balance of not having a state church but protecting the different religious views,” Stewart said. “That’s why we’ve been a model.”
As a result, he said, there’s no one dominant church or sect in the United States. “We have so much diversity in religion there is no one dominant religion, and that’s created a lot more tolerance. So it is of great concern when you see the rising of intolerance.”
The idea that Congress should open with a Christian prayer each day, but not with a prayer from any other faith – the position taken by Idaho 1st District Congressman Bill Sali – is counter to the Constitution’s central principles, Stewart explained. “Our democracy requires respect of all people’s right to practice their religion,” he said. “Good citizens of other religions, they pay their taxes, they defend this country, they’re an integral part – they shouldn’t be second-class citizens.”
“One can be deeply committed to their particular religious principles without discriminating against other people’s right to their religion,” Stewart said. “We need to celebrate our differences – that in no way takes away from one’s own personal beliefs. I can be very committed to the Christian faith, which I am, and yet at the same time have total respect for other religious faiths and be very willing to hear prayers or make them a total inclusive part of our society. It’s not the job of the state to show a preference or to discriminate against some religions, or even non-religious people.”