Coffin, 7-22-2019

Guest Column: Atheists’ board invocations help religious freedom

Jim Coffin 2018-1(Orlando Sentinel, July 22, 2019)


Commissioners on the Brevard County Board of County Commissioners were no doubt stunned when, on July 8, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit unanimously declared (Williamson v. Brevard County) that the commissioners’ practice of automatically denying atheists the opportunity to offer solemnizing invocations/reflections at the board’s meetings was “discriminatory,” “unconstitutional” and “must be rejected.”

Judging from the commissioners’ earlier depositions, they probably view the court’s decision as an assault on Christianity. How could judges say it’s “discriminatory” and “unconstitutional” to not allow atheists to provide invocations at government meetings?

For many Christians, however, the court’s decision is seen as moving one step closer to fully realizing the religious egalitarian ideal envisioned by our nation’s founders.

Tony Perkins, a conservative Christian and the newly elected chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, declared in an article posted recently by the Religion News Service that “a Christian worldview requires [Christians] to care about religious freedom — including the religious freedom of others.” And Christians must do so, he argued, “even when those beliefs are very different from our own.”

Perkins reiterated that “advocating for the religious freedom of non-Christians, far from being incompatible with the Christian worldview, is actually required by it.” But such an understanding hasn’t always been the norm.

When various persecuted Christian factions arrived in North America centuries ago, they typically sought religious freedom for themselves only — not for everyone else. Especially not for non-Christians.

The charters, constitutions, laws and edicts of the various colonies and localities of that time outlined which religious teachings and practices were and weren’t acceptable, and which groups were welcome.

When in 1682 William Penn, a Quaker, founded Pennsylvania, he provided a safe haven for Quakers and many other faith groups — but in varying degrees. Jews and Catholics were welcome to reside there and freely practice their faith. But they weren’t allowed to vote. That was reserved for those with more acceptable theology.

The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 required an oath for all legislative representatives: “I do believe in one God, the creator and governor of the universe, the rewarder of the good and punisher of the wicked. And I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by Divine inspiration.”

Such oaths of office weren’t unique to Pennsylvania.

The oath called for by the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 began: “I _______, do declare that I believe the Christian religion …”

The New Hampshire Constitution of 1784 stated that only Protestants could be senators or representatives.

And the North Carolina Constitution of 1776 stated that “no person, who shall deny the being of God or the truth of the Protestant religion, or the divine authority of the Old or New Testaments … shall be capable of holding any office …”

Fortunately, such religious-test legislation has all but disappeared, thanks to Article VI, Clause 3, of the U.S. Constitution. But in practice, vestiges still linger.

The Brevard County decision came about because of the confluence of at least four factors: (1) Brevard County Commissioners with the same don’t-enfranchise-those-too-far-outside-the-mainstream mindset held by William Penn more than three centuries ago; (2) a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision (Town of Greece v. Galloway), which implied that atheists had just as much right as adherents of any faith group to deliver solemnizing invocations at government meetings; (3) a group of atheists who were willing, ready and able to follow the Supreme Court’s suggestion; and (4) a federal district court and a federal appeals court that have clearly moved beyond the perceived need for the sectarian exclusions advocated by the first European arrivals at our shores.

The appeals-court decision isn’t an assault on Christianity. Nor is it incompatible with the Christian worldview. Rather, it’s an overdue step in bringing our entire highly diverse community into greater respectful interaction. It helps to break down the too-long-maintained delineation between participant citizens and spectator citizens — because the latter group failed the majority’s religious-orthodoxy litmus test.

James Coffin is executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.