Down through the centuries and all over the world, the battle for religious freedom has been a bitter one. The United States has been no exception. Although most of those who founded this country came here seeking religious freedom, it has been a source of contention from the beginning and remains so today. There are fanatics on both sides of this issue. On one side, we have those who think their religious freedom is being violated if they are not allowed to force their religion down everyone else’s throat. One the other side, we have those who believe it’s their inalienable right to never be exposed to any element of religious life. Both extremes are wrong. Government should be neither hostile to any religion nor an enforcer of it. Instead, those who possess common sense should be capable of assenting to a happy medium.
Contrary to popular belief, the phrase, "separation of church and state", cannot be found in the U.S. Constitution. That phrase is misleading anyway as many people interpret it as "protection of the state from the church." Most of our Founding Fathers frequently, and often publicly, expressed their faith in a Creator, so it should be obvious to anyone that they never intended to banish expressions of religious faith from the public square. Any separation of church and state that they had in mind was to serve only four major functions: (1) allow people to freely practice the religion of their choice (or no religion at all) without interference from the state, (2) forbid any religion or denomination from being set up as the "state church", (3) prevent the state from having the church do its bidding, and (4) protect the church from being regulated and having its practices dictated to it by the state. From these principles, I think we can derive a common sense approach to religious freedom.
Our common sense approach should allow for verbal religious expression and for the display of religious symbols and materials in public and government venues. Although all religions should have equal access and rights regarding those expressions and displays, the majority religion would obviously have a major advantage here. But so be it. No one would be hurt or forced to practice any religion against his or her will. If anyone is offended, that’s their problem. No one has a right to not be offended, although many people think they have this right. Being offended once in a while is the price one has to pay for living in a free and open society. If someone has a major problem with that, they are free to leave this country any time they wish.
Our common sense approach should also allow for limited amounts of prayer and religious teaching in public schools. It should not be the focus of any public school, but it should be permitted and based on the religion favored by the majority of the parents in a given school district. The majority of parents could opt for no prayer or religious teaching at all in a given school district, if they so desired. All parents would have the option of not having their child (children) participate in or be present for the prayer and religious teaching. Although the teaching of evolution would still be mandatory, creationism could be taught as part of any religious curriculum.
Another tenet of our common sense approach would be to make sure that all religious speech, no matter how offensive or "hateful" some people might find it, is always safeguarded. We do not want to follow Canada’s lead of coding political correctness into law and banning some forms of religious speech. For example, in some parts of Canada, a person can be fined or jailed for proclaiming that homosexual activity is sinful. Too many people don’t want to hear sin called sin anymore, but we must make sure that people always have the right to condemn anything that their religion says is wrong. This even includes the right of someone from a minority religion to denounce our culture. As long as someone doesn’t yell "fire" in a crowded theater, explicitly threaten anyone, or call for someone else to do harm, their speech should be protected.
Another element of our common sense approach to religious freedom would be to prohibit any laws (1) that are based solely on religious beliefs and (2) that punish those who do not follow them. For example, laws ordering that stores be closed on Sunday should be banned. Now, just because some law correlates with someone’s religious belief doesn’t mean it should be invalidated. Many valid laws, even those against murder, correspond to religious commandments. What I’m talking about are laws that exist expressly for furthering a religion. The state has no right to enforce anyone’s religious beliefs, even those of the majority religion. Besides, what’s the use of forcing someone to obey religious laws? Does it make them any more righteous? Does it make the community or the nation any more righteous? I don’t think so.
The final component to our common sense approach would be to ensure that we protect speech or entertainment that might be offensive to any particular religion or even religion in general. Once again, no one has a right to not be offended. Many fundamentalist Christians are so outraged by anti-Christian speech or entertainment that they would like to see it banned, censored, or at least driven from the airwaves. However, if we’re going to have unlimited freedom to promote our religion, then others should have unlimited freedom to demean it. If we don’t allow the free exercise of anti-religious speech, we are not much better than a theocracy and we are not practitioners of true religious freedom. Besides, if one’s religion can’t hold up in the face of criticism, it is evidently quite weak anyway.