WASHINGTON — A diverse group of religious and secular
a joint statement
Jan. 12 aimed at advancing public understanding about legal rights and
limitations on religious expression in the public square.
Led by Wake Forest University Divinity School’s Center
for Religion and Public Affairs, the document does not
advocate what the law should be, but discusses what it actually says. The
project evolved from a 2006 meeting
where experts, discussing earlier joint statements that helped advance public
understanding of rules governing religion in public schools, suggested a
consensus statement of what current law says about religious expression in the
wider public square, including religion and politics; religious gatherings on
governmental property; chaplains in legislative bodies, prisons and the
military; and religion in the workplace.
“The drafters’ purpose in crafting this statement is to help
foster an accurate understanding of current law and improve our national
dialogue on these issues,” said Melissa Rogers, who directs Wake Forest’s
Center for Religion and Public Affairs. “While there is disagreement among them
about the merits of some of the court decisions and laws mentioned in the
document, they agree that current law protects the rights of people to express
their religious convictions and practice their faiths on government property
and in public life as described in the statement.”
represent a wide swath of Christian, Jewish and Muslim life. Baptists
supporting the project include both Richard Land of the Southern Baptist
Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, and Brent Walker and
Holly Hollman of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.
Rogers said the diverse group often disagrees how the law
should affect issues regarding the intersection of religion and government.
Some support overturning laws and court decisions cited in the document, while
others agree with them. Despite those differences, she said, they agree in many
cases on where the law stands today.
“More broadly, they also agree that religious liberty, or
freedom of conscience, is a fundamental, inalienable right for all people,
religious and nonreligious, and that there is a need to correct
misunderstandings about this right,” she said.
The statement said legal rights and responsibilities
regarding religious expression in public life are often poorly understood, and
the document is an attempt to remedy that problem.
According to the document, the drafters’ purpose in crafting
the statement is to provide an accurate understanding of current law.
“We also hope our efforts to find consensus will spur others
to engage one another in similar efforts and find common ground,” the drafters
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.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Allen is senior writer for Associated