Editorial: Pulpit Bullies

Missouri’s Catholic bishops, champions of Amendment 2 (set for Tuesday’s ballot in Missouri) say the measure is needed because religious values are becoming “marginalized in society.”

We don’t mean to be disrespectful to those bishops or other proponents of this measure, but this contention is in our opinion a blatant obfuscation. Religion has never been more prominently on display or available in the public marketplace of ideas.

Amendment 2, which would modify the Missouri Constitution’s language on the right to express religious ideas, is a very bad idea no matter which way you analyze it.

If, as many of its proponents claim, the proposal simply “clarifies” the state of religious freedom, then we’re wasting precious state resources at a time of economic difficulty to put forth an unneeded measure.

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If it’s instead an attempt to broaden the right to pray into more public reaches — some think the language may be intended to set up more religious intrusions into government-run conduct, such as public schools and public meetings — then it’s quite likely to violate the United States Constitution’s prohibition against establishment of religion.

The bishops said, “People of faith need assurance that they remain free to exercise their religious beliefs in public, provided just order be observed, without threat of external pressure to conform to changing societal norms.”

This claim of public pressure and government restriction on religious exercise is a straw man on many different levels. Most notable is that religious institutions have access to their flocks in more ways now than ever before.

Most traditional in reaching believers, of course, is the place of worship. If you draw a radius of three miles around almost any point in the St. Louis metro area, you can find dozens of places of worship. Christians, Jews, Muslims and others have access to hundreds upon hundreds of facilities in our town. Those places are unaffected and undiminished by government conduct.

Moreover, you can turn on your radio, TV or computer and find virtually thousands of broadcasts, telecasts and internet sites devoted to spiritual life. Never has there been a time in history in which those espousing a spiritual component to life have had better access to the general populace.

But that’s not enough for some, who want to create the perception that the big, bad governments want to un-God the world. This is simply untrue; if anything, religion is being used as a sword, not a shield, in public dialogue to inculcate people in the public sphere against their will. A perfect example is the desire by zealots to teach our kids religion in public schools through challenges to the accepted scientific theory of evolution. If those who cry religious wolf truly believed in the separation of church and state, this would be impermissible territory.

Ironically, the ones we’re most aware of who are seeking affirmatively to discriminate against religion are those believers who find religions other than their own objectionable. Thus, in Murfreesboro, Tenn., a Muslim place of worship was delayed in its opening for months because of voices within the Christian community. Courts finally intervened to protect the worshippers in their right to pray, over complaints by locals that Islam isn’t really a religion.

And perhaps the most offensive posture of all in recent times came from Louisiana state legislator Valarie Hodges. She claimed she never would have voted for a voucher program for private schools if she had known that Muslim schools could avail themselves of the program alongside Christian schools. She apparently thought it was constitutionally fine for the state to discriminate among religions. As we know, this is hardly the case; any law that did so would be struck down by even the most conservative jurists.

We don’t deny that there are always going to be areas around the edges that need clarifying, and they provide the issues with which public officials wrestle; mandatory contraception coverage under the federal health care law comes to mind. But to derive from that nuanced and difficult debate a systematic agenda to eviscerate religion is a massive stretch.

We sympathize with religious leaders who are finding a difficult time marketing to and attracting worshippers amongst the noises of the modern world. It’s a hard task at best and sometimes a futile one. But to use those challenges as an excuse to wage war on those who are trying to honor our founders’ principles by keeping religion out of governmental hands is both disingenuous and dangerous, and must be countered with a firm and forceful “no thanks.” That’s why Amendment 2 should be defeated next Tuesday.