Religious ‘liberty’, or religious coercion?

Last Monday was intended to start in celebratory fashion with my university, Oglethorpe University, receiving a citation of honor at Georgia’s statehouse. Our newly elected state representative, with the help of one of his interns (an Oglethorpe student, of course) had gone out of his way to make arrangements for more than a dozen students to join me at the Capitol to witness our state government at work and to receive our citation. And while this part of the day went according to form and was greatly appreciated, I have rarely been so humiliated by the spectacle we witnessed beforehand.

At the beginning of each session of the House, a Chaplain of the Day is introduced to deliver a prayer. This morning (and I was told by others who are regulars that what I heard this morning was typical of most days), the prayer was preceded by a sermon, some 15 minutes in length. I have lived in the South for 11 years now and I am quite accustomed to prayers before meetings and meals. It’s a regular occurrence and I appreciate the time to pause, reflect, and give thanks. In my experience, the people delivering such prayers, whether they are clergy or lay persons, have been uniformly sensitive about the potentially diverse nature of their audience. Some have more Christian content than others to be sure, but as a person raised in the Jewish faith living in a country which is majority Christian, I have learned to accept that.

I cannot, however, accept what I heard today nor can I allow it to go unchallenged. The short version of the 15-minute sermon was this (and please remember this was not a prayer, but a full-blown sermon): if you do not accept Christ as your savior, then you cannot lead a life of significance. All good things come from accepting that there is only one way to live one’s life and that is as a Christian. If the preacher had not repeated this a dozen times or more, I might not believe what I heard, but he left no doubt. No doubt at all. And remember we were not in church. We were in a public session of our State House of Representatives. I forgot to mention one detail: they actually locked the doors before the sermon so no one could leave. I am not kidding.

In the 1983 case of Marsh vs. Chambers, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that it was not a violation of the establishment clause for a state legislature to open its sessions with a prayer. The Court found that because the legislative prayers in the case before it were led by religious leaders of various faiths and that the prayers by the Christian chaplain were not coercive nor intended to persuade listeners into adopting a specific form of belief. The Court commented that the chaplain had gone out of his way to avoid offending those of different faiths. Since Marsh, several circuit courts have ruled that prayers not intended to advance or attack any particular religious faith would not run afoul of the constitution.

What I was subject to on Monday — the outright and public damnation of those who have not accepted Christ as their savior — was personally horrific, clearly intended to advance one faith over every other, and a clear violation of my constitutional right to freely and openly practice a faith of my choosing. It was designed to be aggressive and coercive and it was exactly that. Is this what our state legislators intend when they are voting in favor of “religious freedom” laws?

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Lawrence M. Schall is president of Oglethorpe University.

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