America's Founding Fathers were wise to guarantee freedom of religion in our Constitution's First Amendment. However, we cannot, today, take this guarantee for granted. History has shown that government control of religion leads to disaster. Our freedoms, often without any public awareness, are being chipped away every day. That is why I have joined other Cobb County residents to challenge the attempt by government officials to use public meetings to promote one religious belief over others.
As a second-generation Jewish American whose grandparents fled from repressive societies, I was raised, along with most Americans, to cherish liberty and to understand that we have a duty to protect the fundamental freedoms set forth in the Constitution. Forever performing that duty, I was surprised to learn, at a young age, that it is not always external forces that try to take away our freedoms.
As a child growing up, I witnessed the results of being treated like an outsider because of my family's religion. I saw my brave World War II veteran uncles excluded, time and time again, from the promises for which they had fought. Instead of finding work as military-trained airplane mechanics, they found blatant anti-Semitism. No matter what they did, they could not get any satisfaction or assistance from their government. They were Jews, and therefore, they were outsiders. Through inaction, the government essentially said to these returning veterans, "You are not one of us and do not deserve the same respect or protections as equal citizens."
While times have changed and blatant discrimination is less common, my family's experience still sticks deeply in my mind. It is unconscionable when government takes any action that alienates or relegates any of its citizenry to feel less than a full participant.
While Cobb County officials regularly invite members of the religious community to open government meetings with prayer, it in no way shows neutrality toward the various beliefs practiced in our land. The majority of the prayers are given by Christian clergy and are made in the name of Jesus Christ.
Each time I go to a government meeting, it is clear that I, as a non-Christian, am not a full part of the political process. The actions of Cobb County leaders send a message that the government will accommodate not the differing beliefs of the people, but the specific faith of the majority of the citizenry.
This is very wrong.
All religions, all beliefs, all dissensions from those beliefs, must be viewed as equal. Religious freedom is promoted when the government stays out of religion. This is a core tenet of the American constitutional tradition that we as citizens strive to protect and to advance.
Our government, from its very founding, was purposefully designed to be neutral toward matters of religious opinion. Even before the Bill of Rights was ratified, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington wrote to Baptist and Jewish congregations to assure both faiths that the protecting essence of "Separation of Church and State" was foremost in the founders' minds and there would not be any government intervention into the belief rights of citizens.
We stand on dangerous ground when the government decides to favor one religious belief over others. In a free society, the government should not view a Christian's faith as any more valid than that of a Jew, or a Hindu's beliefs any more correct than a Muslim's.
Cobb County is a diverse county and citizens of all religions and non-religion should be welcome at government meetings.
Jeffrey Selman lives in Cobb County. He is a husband, father and programming consultant. He, along with four fellow Cobb parents, successfully sued to remove the evolution disclaimers recently placed in science textbooks.
Copyright 2005 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution