Freedom of Religion Includes Defending Diversity of Beliefs

POST BY Kary L. Moss Executive Director
December 19, 2007

Over the years, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan has been called many names, but nothing brings out the taunting more than the holiday season.

Beginning in about mid-October, we receive our first holiday card of the season calling us, among many things, Godless. The truth is the ACLU is neither Godless nor God-full. Our point of view is that religious belief—or the choice not to believe—is among the most personal and private decisions an individual can make.

The Founders of this country correctly believed the right of each and every American to practice his or her religionor no religion at allis one of the most cherished freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.

Unfortunately, our victories for religious freedom are overshadowed by well-organized attempts to demonize the ACLU and curtail religious diversity by sounding the alarm bells on the purported "war on Christmas."

Take, for instance, the Web site WorldNetDaily, which has suggested that the ACLU is actively working to remove "In God We Trust" from U.S. currency, fire military chaplains and delete all references to God in America's founding documents.

Of course, there is no "Merry Christmas" lawsuit, nor is there any ACLU litigation about U.S. currency, military chaplains, etc. But the facts aren't important to these groups. If they were, they would learn that the ACLU defends the rights of Christians, the rights of other religious people and nonbelievers alike.

Yet for true religious liberty to flourish, everyone must be free to worship without government interference.

For instance, Christmas displays—including nativity scenes—are perfectly acceptable at homes, churches and even, in some cases, on city property.

The courts have upheld Birmingham's display, in which the city government has created a public forum in its downtown park where individuals may place displays of their choice—both religious and secular—during the holiday season.

In addition, the federal courts have ruled that religious displays are permissible on government property so long as, when viewed as a whole, a reasonable observer would view the display as having a secular purpose, not a religious purpose.

Without question, freedom of religion is a fundamental human right that needs to be protected for individuals, families and communities. The government should not be in the business of deciding whose sacred texts and symbols should be placed on government property and whose should be rejected—or how they should practice their faith

That is why the ACLU of Michigan is proud to count among its clients Joseph Hanas, an observant Catholic from Genesee County who was sent to jail for asking a drug court judge to remove him from a drug rehabilitation program that coerced him into practicing the Pentecostal faith. He was forced to read the Bible for seven hours a day and was tested on Pentecostal principles. The staff also told him that Catholicism was a form of witchcraft and they confiscated both his rosary and Holy Communion prayer book.

After seven weeks, Hanas requested placement in a secular drug treatment program. The judge refused his request and sentenced him to boot camp and jail. It was only after his release from boot camp that he finally received drug treatment at a secular residential rehabilitation program.

Just a few weeks ago, a federal judge in Detroit agreed with us and ruled that Hanas' constitutional rights were violated.

After all, to advance religious liberty, our nation's Founders intended for government to remain neutral in matters of religion. It is precisely because the government stays out of religion that we have religious freedom in this country.

This Op-Ed originally appeared in the Wednesday, December 19, 2007 issue of the Detroit News. By Kary L. Moss, Executive Director, ACLU of Michigan.

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