Opting Out: The Separation of Difference and Religious Freedom

Last week, religious freedom in the United States was at the center of two major court decisions, and the results have left many religious minorities feeling out in the cold. I am referring to the Supreme Court decision ruling that opening a public meeting with sectarian prayer is constitutional, and the State of Massachusetts court ruling that the practice of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in school every morning does not violate a child’s religious freedom rights, despite the inclusion of the phrase “Under God”. Both rulings consider these public proclamations to be constitutional and not in violation of the separation of church and state because if any person (child or adult) does not wish to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance or the opening prayer of a public meeting, they are free to excuse themselves. By not being mandated, these activities remain constitutional. No one is being forced to participate in a practice that does not represent or mesh with their own personal religious identity.

There’s a major flaw with this way of thinking, and while it may be difficult to see from a majority perspective, it shines like a beacon to those of us who are not a part of that majority. By telling me that I am free to exit the room during a prayer if I feel it is inappropriate, or by telling me that I am free to excuse myself while my classmates all stand for the Pledge of Allegiance sounds an awful lot like the court is saying, “if you don’t like it, you can leave.”

Religious Freedom is tricky when it comes to public prayer. People should have equal rights to express their religious views and identities. I believe that folks should have the right to celebrate religious events, observe the practices of their tradition, and share their beliefs with one another without being afraid to do so. On the other hand, I firmly believe that religious expression and invocation should not play a role in a public forum. We are all equal citizens regardless of religious differences. In the context of a public meeting, we have come together to solve a problem or air our grievances or share our experiences. The only form of invocation that is appropriate is one that encompasses everyone, does nothing to degrade any particular religious belief or lack of belief or religious belief in general, and does nothing to separate one citizen from another. Similarly, in a school setting, children are all equal and present to be educated together. Students who do not agree with the Pledge of Allegiance (whether it is because they do not believe we are a nation “under god” or for another reason) should not be made to begin each day with an act of self-banishment. If an act or public practice divides us rather than unites us, how can it be fair?

Some folks have come forward saying that the Supreme Court decision is a big win for religious freedom, because it guarantees that anyone of any faith can offer a prayer opening a public forum. It’s not enforced; people have the freedom to opt out. By making public prayer something that one can opt out of, rather than something interested parties can opt in to, public prayer is normalized. This says that prayer is the standard by which our public meetings will operate. Sometimes that prayer might click for some people, and sometimes that prayer might not. As a secular humanist, any prayer tells me I am not really part of what’s happening. It’s exclusion masking itself as inclusion. By not forcing me to participate or forcing me to leave, we can check the box marked “religious freedom” when it fact, all this does is make it easier for the majority to carry on as before. They’ve built a back door with an “Exit” sign for religious minorities to quietly excuse ourselves – they haven’t made these public forums more inclusive.

As an individual, I am disappointed in these rulings. As an interfaith educator, my response is a bit less angry and a bit more rooted in growth and learning potential. How can we learn from this to create a better structure for inter-religious education and engagement? How can we make sure that when we are attempting to create spaces that are truly inclusive, we are being guided by hospitality and not the checklist of what “counts” as religious pluralism, religious freedom, or nonsectarian events?

We need to intentionally build opportunities for positive inclusion, rather than exclusion. Inviting others to participate as comfortably as possible is far more hospitable than giving them the freedom to leave or excuse themselves. When working with diverse communities of faith, or communities or diverse faiths, we should bend towards invitation and encouragement rather than expectations. We need to be mindful of what we are establishing as normative or standardized behavior, thought, belief, and practice. Let’s normalize presence, equality, and togetherness. Let’s not ask people to self-ostracize because their religious beliefs are different from our own.

In practice this is far more difficult than the method adopted by the recent court rulings. It’s far easier to say that because participation isn’t required, we are being sensitive to everyone’s needs. Following that line of logic can only take us so far in terms of interfaith hospitality and engagement. We can do better.

This image is used here, compliments of Wikimedia Commons.

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3 thoughts on “Opting Out: The Separation of Difference and Religious Freedom

  1. It’s not always so easy to “opt out.” If you are the majority, there’s no social consequence or awkwardness if a minority religion is featured. If you’re in the minority, “opting out” only makes you feel more like an outsider and draws attention to your status as an “other”. Kids are hyper-aware of those who are different than them. Is anything being done to make sure that kids who would like to opt-out of religious references in school are not made to feel like outsiders but rather people with different and valid beliefs?

  2. You raise good questions here. As a Chaplain who has worked for many years with excluded people (jails, streets, among mentally ill, low-income seniors) I am deeply disappointed by the court’s decisions in these cases. Now, as a Secular Chaplain (www.secularchaplain.wordpress.com), I more acutely feel the marginalization of non-theists which should never happen in a truly free, secular nation with a healthy separation of religion and state. I agree that these decisions may present opportunities for education. I simply wonder if the intransigent people in churches and courts are above and beyond such “education.”

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