Last year, I wrote about God in the Declaration of Independence. I received many favorable comments.

This year, I’ll write about the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and hopefully I’ll receive some favorable comments again.

Read the First Amendment for yourself, and you will notice it refers to five freedoms: religion, speech, the press, peaceable assembly, and petitioning of the government for a redress of grievances.

Freedom of religion is the first of the Four Freedoms listed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in an address to Congress during World War II. I shall address only the freedom of religion in this column.

The First Amendment stipulates that the Congress of the United States shall not make a law respecting (1) an establishment of religion or (2) prohibiting the free exercise of religion.

The establishment of religion goes way back in history. The chief’s religion became the religion of the tribe. Then the king’s religion became the religion of the kingdom. Then governments established the official religion of the state.

There are many countries today with established religions. Some tolerate other religions, while others persecute them.

The Congress of the United States has never passed a law to establish any religion in our country. In America, our religions have done well. This is because we are free to choose our religions, and we voluntarily choose to support them with our prayers, our attendance at worship, our money and our service to others.

Second, the Congress of the United States has not passed any law prohibiting the freedom of religion. There are some people in our country who want to prohibit the free exercise of religion. They claim that a prayer in a public setting violates the First Amendment.

A prayer in a public setting and a religious symbol in public view are in no way an establishment of religion. These people confuse the practice of religion with the establishment of religion, and by attempting to prohibit the free exercise of religion they are, in fact, violating the First Amendment.

They have forgotten that government’s responsibility is not to tell us to how to believe, but to protect our right to believe and practice the religion we freely choose.

Through our faith communities, God has brought many blessings to America.

All religions and religious people in this country are entitled to equal dignity and respect. Everyone has the freedom to choose which religion to believe and practice.

This, of course, does not mean that anyone has the right to burn down another’s place of worship, kill someone of another faith or commit a crime against anyone else in the name of his or her religion.

We all have the freedom of choice and the responsibility to be good citizens.

 

The Rev. Richard H. Petersen, Ph.D., is a retired pastor in the Evangelical Covenant Church.