Religious Rights Aren’t Conferred By Majority Rule

Gene PolicinskiCommentary
Inside the First Amendment

By Gene Policinski
First Amendment Center vice president/executive director

When we’re in the majority, we generally get our way — from the playground to Congress.

But our basic rights as citizens don’t depend on having one more vote or legislative seat than someone else. There’s no “51% clause” in the Constitution or Bill of Rights. Each of us has his or her basic rights and no government entity, election result or judicial ruling can confer or confiscate them.

And that’s what’s so annoying about those who cite majority figures in arguing for their “right” to ignore minority religious views — apart from what should be a clear understanding that the law forbids government to favor or disfavor any particular religion.

You would think that people of faith would be the last to employ the concept of majority rule in their reasoning. Most faiths I know have moral absolutes — sins are sinful because they are, not because of some public referendum or legislative caucus.

In a dispute involving a crèche display at the Franklin County Courthouse in Indiana, County Commissioner Tom Wilson said, according to the Associated Press, that the 50-year tradition was “a big thing around here. We’re in the Midwest, part of the Bible Belt, and around here everyone has good Christian values. We’re not trying to push our religion on anybody.”

"I just think that we’ve got one percent of the population or less trying to tell 99 percent what to believe and what to do and what our values are," Wilson said.

Well, as it happens, exactly. The very values we celebrate as a nation were created in no small degree to combat attitudes that would dispose of inconvenient minority views — something James Madison and others before him called “the tyranny of the majority.”

Devout Christians may well see Nativity scenes as an affirmation of one of the most sacred moments of the liturgical calendar, the birth of Christ. Others may well see the scene as more of a traditional reminder of the season. But for some, it’s evidence of government endorsement of the “correct” religion,  something not permitted by the First Amendment and a chilling message in a world all too often wracked by religious-based wars and persecutions.

Sure, I doubt that a religious pogrom was on the minds of those putting up the Nativity display at the Franklin County Courthouse. But why not set up such displays at the homes of the faithful, at churches and private schools of one faith or another, where the message and the motive are unmistakable and all the more powerful?

The original Nativity, after all, did not take place on government property.

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