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Pierre Omidyar: Separation of Mosque and State

By Huffington Post
October 26, 2010

There is a growing tide of opinion in this country that religion and government should be intertwined. This view tends to be most widely held by evangelical Christians, who believe that society would benefit if Christianity played an official role in government.

A recent Honolulu Civil Beat poll found that 11 percent of likely voters in Hawaii believed Christianity should play an official role in government. Among evangelical
Christian voters, the number was 32 percent.

Those who hold this view have begun questioning the Constitutional principle of separation of church and state. Most recently, Colorado Republican Senate candidate Ken Buck said he “strongly” disagreed with the principle. Delaware Republican Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell wasn’t sure exactly where to find the principle or what the First Amendment was actually about.

Despite its name, the separation of church and state applies equally to any religion, so it could also be called the “separation of temple and state,” or the “separation of mosque and state.”

This important principle derives from the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, which reads, in its striking simplicity and brevity:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The United States Constitution and its Bill of Rights is in many ways an extraordinary document, and a reading of its First Amendment brings that to life.

The phrase “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” is referred to as the Establishment Clause, and is the basis for the principle of separation of church/temple/mosque and state. Combined with the phrase “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” known as the Free Exercise Clause, this short sentence is what guarantees Americans of all faiths (or no faith) the freedom to worship (or not) as they like, and freedom from the oppression of a state-sponsored
religion.

Some argue that allowing Christianity to play an official role in government would make communities stronger by promoting morality and faith. Readers of Jim Wallis will certainly
appreciate the positive impact that faith can bring. But while faith plays an important role in encouraging morality, social cohesion and justice, government-sponsored or government-favored religion brings a whole host of problems.

Ask the Christians who live in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iran is a theocracy — a country whose government allows religion to play an official role, where God is considered the highest authority,
superseding civil authority. In this case, it’s the God of Islam, and His authority is interpreted by human beings under His divine guidance. The rights of religious minorities like Christians are
guaranteed under the Iranian Constitution, but they are still subject to the higher divine authority of Islam.

Would a Christian living in Iran feel she had the right to the free exercise of her religion, despite those guarantees? Not likely. It’s obvious that the free exercise of religion is impacted by
government-sponsored religion.

Back in the United States, even short of an official theocracy, any government official in a position of leadership needs to be mindful of the environment she creates by encouraging prayer under her particular faith. While her intentions would be positive, her sponsorship, constant presence and active encouragement of others to attend would undoubtedly make people of different (or no) faith feel that they might fall out of favor with an important official by not attending.

This has become an issue in the Hawaii gubernatorial race because the Republican candidate, Lt. Gov. James “Duke” Aiona, has stated he would continue to hold prayer sessions in his office after having dedicated Hawaii’s public schools in prayer to God and Jesus Christ.

Is the pressure of official sponsorship akin to “prohibiting the free exercise” of one’s religion? In the case of Iran, their government doesn’t think so, because it doesn’t “prohibit” the exercise of any religion, despite official sponsorship of Islam.

In the United States, however, it appears some people are still asking that question. What do you think?

From The Huffington Post