Wednesday, May 10, 2006

On freedom of religion

Cross posted at JUST CITIZENS.

This story comes to you from South Carolina.

The owners of a Spartanburg apartment complex have asked residents to stop a Bible study held in a common area.

The owners of Heritage Court said the study violates the Fair Housing Act. The apartments are privately owned by One Management of Raleigh, N.C., but many residents have their rent subsidized by federal vouchers.

"It's not our rule. It's Fair Housing law, which says you cannot discriminate against religion," One Management Vice President Jenny Petri said. "It's unfortunate, but we are required to comply to Fair Housing laws. We hope that the residents can continue doing what they're doing within their own apartment."

But the owners may be misinterpreting the law, said William Dudley Gregorie, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's field office director for South Carolina.

The Bible studies are likely OK as long as permission was also given to any other religious group who wanted to use the area, Gregorie said. "In other words, if you let one, you have to let all," he said.

There is nothing in this world that ignites the passions of Americans more than religion. It seems every faith is feeling persecution, and those who have none, and feel they've been persecuted in the past, are striking back and forcing the pendulum to the other extreme.

The Bill of Rights -- and specifically the First Amendment -- protects the freedom of religion. That is to say -- it specifically says that the government cannot impose a certain religion on the populace, nor can it violate the rights of Americans to practice their faith. It seems pretty simple, right?

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The government cannot force you to worship a certain way, and it cannot prevent you from worshipping in your own way.

Then, why is it that the apparent simplicity of these words has been twisted on numerous different ways?

Yes, the owners of the apartment complex in the above story own a private enterprise. It just so happens, however, that they accept tenants, who pay for their rent in taxpayer money - government vouchers - OUR money. If the owners barred residents from paying rent in government cash, they could demand whatever they wanted in the common areas of their own property. But since they choose to accept taxpayer dollars as part of their profits, what gives them the right to:

1 - prohibit residents from exercising their Christian faith?

2 - prohibit other residents from exercising other kinds of faiths, including Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Wicca, Buddhism and others?

It is, after all, property partially paid for and maintained with federal dollars.

The First Amendment seeks to ensure that no government ever attempts to impose a theocracy in this nation by forcing its citizens to worship a certain way, and it seeks to ensure that goverment, by the same token, cannot prohibit someone from worshipping a certain way.

Does that mean that a kid or a group of kids can't say a prayer in school? No. It means that a teacher or adiministrator cannot FORCE a kid or group of kids to say a prayer to Jesus, Allah, Yaweh, Hecate or any other deity in school.

Does this mean that a group of folks can't hold a prayer meeting in a public park? No. It means that no government has the authority to prohibit them from doing so, or to prohibit other faiths from doing so as well.

Freedom is freedom. It's the same for everyone. That's what the Founders strove to protect.

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