Opponents Find Consensus on Religion in Public Life

Religious and legal experts who usually find themselves on opposite sides of the religious expression in public square debate issued an unprecedented consensus statement this week that details what the current law says about religion in public life.

Diverse leaders ranging from Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, to T. Jeremy Gunn, former director of program on freedom of religion and belief at the American Civil Liberties Union, helped draft the "Religious Expression in American Public Life: A Joint Statement of Current Law."

The statement addresses hot-button issues such as religious displays on government property, reciting the pledge of allegiance in public schools, the right of religious organizations to publish religious messages and apply for licenses to operate radio and television stations, among other topics.

"While there is disagreement among us about the merits of some of the court decisions and laws mentioned in this document, we agree that current law protects the rights of people to express their religious convictions and practice their faiths on government property and in public life as described here," the statement says. "Thus, we hope this document will help settle debate about whether current law provides any protection for the right of religious express (which it clearly does) and focus our attention on the merits of specific laws and court decisions in this area."

The statement is sponsored by the Wake Forest University Divinity School's Center for Religion and Public Affairs. Those involved in drafting the document say they hope the effort will improve public dialogue about the issue by avoiding useless arguments.

Drafters throughout the document highlighted the important distinction between religious expression that involves the government and those involving non-governmental organizations and individuals.

"The First Amendment clearly protects the rights of people to express their religious belief and practice their faith in public life while prohibiting the government from establishing religion," said K. Hollyn Hollman, general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, in a statement. "This project has the potential to create a wider public understanding of the basic protections offered by our legal system, allowing us to focus on specific controversies without damaging citizens' comprehension of the big picture."

In total, 28 religious and legal experts were involved in the drafting of the statement.

Some include Rabbi David Saperstein, director and counsel of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; Maha ElGenaidi, president of the Islamic Networks Group; Colby May, director and senior counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, Washington office; and Melissa Rogers, director of the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at the Wake Forest University Divinity School.

"If experts like this can agree on what the law is, I think it commands our attention," Rogers commented, according to the Associated Baptist Press.

On the Web: http://divinity.wfu.edu