in the memorial and remonstrance, written in 1785, james madison said, "during almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of christianity been on trial. what have been its fruits? more or less in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution." the memorial and remonstrance was written in opposition to a proposal by Patrick Henry to use government funds to support christian churches in virginia.
the principle of government neutrality in matters of religion continues to be a thorny problem in the united states, as the recent supreme court ruling in the hobby lobby case demonstrates. subsequent to that ruling and president obama's announcement of his intention to issue an executive order banning discrimination in hiring by federal contractors, several religious leaders sent the president a letter asking for a religious exemption to that rule for religious organizations that receive funds under federal contracts. this seems a reasonable request, even if one disagrees with the religious belief that lgbt citizens are violating christian teachings. should a religious organization be forced to employ those that they believe are violating the religious principles of that organization? should an lgbt person accept employment from an organization that condemns them as "sinful" because of the sexual orientation with which they were born?
the right questions, it seems to me, is: should government contracts be awarded to religious organizations? there is little doubt that some religious organizations do much good, but should the government support "faith-based" organizations by employing them to fulfill government contracts? should state governments furnish textbooks and other materials to religious schools because the parents of the students attending those schools have helped pay for those materials through the taxes they pay? should public school districts be forced to supply specialized instructional personnel in certain areas, like special education, for students in religious schools? these are all areas where we seem to have crossed the line separating church and state in the united states, and, in the case of school policy, the courts have often sided with religious organizations and against public schools.
as we, though government policy, become more entangled with religious organizations, the closer we move to establishing an official religion in the united states. the persecution complex of the religious right and the push for control of government at all levels by the advocates of dominionism seek to move us closer to the establishment of christianity as the de facto, if not the de jure, official religion of the usa.
the tax-exempt status of religious groups is another way in which all citizens are forced to support religious organizations, even those with which they disagree. why should an atheist have to pay more in taxes to make up the shortfall created by granting tax exemptions for the church, mosque, or temple down the street? why should we be able to deduct our contributions to our church from our income for tax purposes, beyond the extent that those contributions actually support charitable endeavors such as homeless shelters?
as we look at the great harm the religious dominance of governments has created around the world, madison's words from 1785 are as true now as they were then. one has only to look at religious states like iran and israel, governments identified with a particular religious groups like that of iraq or syria, and the persecution of one religious group by a more dominant group like the persecution of burmese muslims by burmese buddhists to see how right madison and jefferson were as they fought to build a wall of separation between church and state in the young united states.
may those of us who identify as members of a religious group use our influence to continue the struggle that was a part of the reason the united states came into being. may we practice our religion without infringing on the rights of others to practice or not practice religion according to the dictates of their conscience. shalom.