July 18, 2005
A Muslim perspective on church and state
By Dr. Parvez Ahmed
The U.S. Supreme Court's yes-and-no decision on the public display of the Ten Commandments and the loss of Sandra Day O'Connor swing vote has refocused the debate over the line separating of church and state. In that debate, we may wish to consider redrawing that line.
The First Amendment clearly states that that government shall not make any laws "respecting an establishment of religion," but it fails to offer a precise definition of what role religion may play in the public arena. The establishment clause is a key pillar of American society and an idea the Bush administration tried to introduce into the Iraqi and Afghan constitutions.
But before this or any subsequent administration tries to promote separation of church and state abroad, particularly in the Muslim world, it is first necessary to get it right at home.
American Muslims, like other religious minorities in this country, are among the beneficiaries of the establishment clause and thus are among its biggest supporters. Like other minority groups, American Muslims remain concerned that the next Supreme Court nominee may very well redefine the church-state relationship.
The new court will determine not just the future of religious discourse in America, but will send a strong signal to the rest of the world. Are we going to continue to provide leadership on this question of separating church and state? Are we willing to recalibrate this principle that has helped religious life flourish in America?
Noah Feldman writing in the New York Times Magazine posits the redrawing of the church-state line to allow the display of religious symbols on public property while banning government funding of faith-based programs. Ten Commandments are in and voucher programs for private religious schools are out, essentially reversing the Supreme Court's direction over the past decade.
Feldman argues that public displays of religious symbols are by and large non-threatening to minorities. Any religious occasion for the majority will bring with it overt displays of their religious symbols all around.
During Christmas, overt Christian decorations may make some uncomfortable, even feel left out, but such displays do not reduce the citizenship rights of any minority. Invoking God in a prayer before the opening of a congressional session or mentioning God in the pledge of allegiance or on a coin may make atheists uncomfortable, but does not reduce their rights.
Moreover, this change in policy will provide minorities opportunities to educate others about their religious views. Displays of religious symbols of minority communities can be placed side by side with symbols from majority faiths. Thus the Ten Commandments can be displayed next to verses from the Quran. Religion will find a space in public life and yet the state will not endorse any particular religion.
In contrast, government funding of religious institutions may infringe upon the citizenship rights of minorities. Majority religious institutions, often because they are the best organized, have an unfair advantage in receiving public funds. Majority faith-based institutions receiving public funds will invariably have close proximity to public offices, thus creating an environment for a particular religion to gain influence over government.
This proposed reinterpretation of church and state makes common sense. It has a chance of not only winning wide support in this country but also seems very "exportable," providing America a chance to claim the high ground on an issue that is likely to influence politics for generations to come, both here and abroad.
[Dr. Parvez Ahmed, Ph.D., is board chairman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation's largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy group. He may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.]