New statement ‘first-ever consensus’ on religious expression and U.S. law

E.J. Dionne speaks at the statement release. At left is Marc Stern. (Cherilyn Crowe/BJC)
WASHINGTON (ABP) -- A diverse group of leaders who often find themselves on opposite sides of the contentious battles at the intersection of church and state joined forces Jan. 12 to unveil an unprecedented consensus statement aimed at advancing public understanding of -- and preventing needless controversy over -- the legal issues around religious expression in the public square.

WASHINGTON (ABP) -- A diverse group of leaders who often find themselves on opposite sides of the contentious battles at the intersection of church and state joined forces Jan. 12 to unveil an unprecedented consensus statement aimed at advancing public understanding of -- and preventing needless controversy over -- the legal issues around religious expression in the public square.

Colby May (at podium) speaks at the document release while other panelists look on. (Cherilyn Crowe/BJC)
“In a free society, there will always be conflicts of principle and of interest,” said E.J. Dionne, a Washington Post columnist and Brookings Institution fellow who moderated a panel discussion featuring some of the document’s drafters. “But there are useful conflicts and useless conflicts.... Today’s document sets its face against useless arguments.”

Led by Wake Forest University Divinity School's Center for Religion and Public Affairs, the document does not advocate a particular direction for future legislation and case law in regard to religious expression. Instead, it outlines what experts in church-state relations agree that the law currently says in an effort to stave off needlessly divisive debates and lawsuits.

The project evolved from a 2005 meeting in which experts, discussing several earlier joint statements that helped advance public understanding of rules governing religion in public schools, suggested a similar consensus document on what the law says about religious expression in the wider public square. Areas addressed include religion and politics; religious gatherings on government property; holiday or seasonal religious displays on government and private property; government-paid chaplains; and religion in the workplace.

“While this diverse group often disagrees about how the law should address legal issues, the drafters agree in many cases on what the law is today,” said Melissa Rogers, director of the Wake Forest center and a former general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.

Fellow document drafter Colby May, senior counsel for the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, agreed. “What really brought us together is our shared conviction that religious liberty and the freedom of conscience are in fact fundamental -- they are inalienable rights for all people,” he said.

The statement's signers represent a wide swath of American religious life. Baptists supporting the project include Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission as well as Brent Walker and Holly Hollman of the Baptist Joint Committee -- two organizations that often find themselves on opposing sides of church-state debates.

Signers of the document include (L to R): Shabbir Mansuri of the Institute on Religion and Civic Values; Isabelle Kinnard Richman of the First Freedom Center; Charles Haynes of the Freedom Forum; E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution; Holly Hollman and Brent Walker of the BJC; Melissa Rogers of Wake Forest; Marc Stern of the American Jewish Congress; and Rich Foltin of the American Jewish Committee. (Cherilyn Crowe/BJC)
Groups represented by other document drafters include the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Jewish Committee, the Islamic Networks Group, the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and the Sikh Council on Religion and Education.

“If experts like this can agree on what the law is, I think it commands our attention,” Rogers said.

Rogers and other drafters of the document said the legal rights and responsibilities regarding religious expression in public life are often poorly understood, and the statement is an attempt to remedy that problem.

“There has been an incredibly brain-dead discussion about religious expression in American public life in so many contexts -- and part of that brain-dead nature of the conversation is that there are so many false claims” about what the law actually says about the protections for, and limits upon, individual, group and governmental expressions of religious faith, Rogers said.

“I do hope this document will help us to have a more productive discussion,” she continued.

The signers said they hope that their attempt to describe current law as accurately as possible will play a positive role in future debate. "That certainly will not end our debates, but it will help make them more productive," the document says.

Charles Haynes, one of the driving forces behind the document's creation as well as its predecessor statements on religion and schools, is senior scholar at the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center in Washington. He said he hopes the document will be used by public officials, employers and private groups the same way that the earlier statements on religion in public schools have been used by school boards, administrators and teachers.

“The consensus on what the law requires on key issues involving religion in public schools ... has helped transform how many public schools apply the First Amendment,” he said. “Common ground reached on a national level frequently allows local communities to adopt policies and practices that enjoy broad public support.”

He noted that many policies on religion produced by state boards of education and school districts in the past decade quote verbatim from the earlier consensus statements -- and that they have repeatedly helped defuse situations that otherwise would have exploded into litigation.

“Based on the track record of these past agreements, I am convinced that this new joint statement, covering a wide range of issues, can and will play a significant role in preventing litigation and promoting civil public discourse,” Haynes said.

Rogers said the next phase of the project is disseminating the document to public officials and others who could use it.

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Religious Expresion in American Public Life: A Joint Statement of Current Law