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FREEDOM OF RELIGION

July 13, 2014

In the State of the Union Address, delivered to the 77th United States Congress on January 6, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt enumerated four fundamental freedoms that should be the rights of human beings everywhere in the world:

  1. Freedom of speech and expression
  2. Freedom for  every person to worship in his or her own way
  3. Freedom from want
  4. Freedom from fear

“The Four Freedoms” speech inspired a set of four paintings by Norman Rockwell. They were printed in The Saturday Evening Post in 1943, accompanied by essays on the Four Freedoms.

Every freedom carries with it certain responsibilities. Perhaps the Bill of Rights should include a companion Bill of Responsibility.

During the month of July, my “By the Way” column written for the H-J Weekly will feature the Four Freedoms and the responsibilities that accompany them.

For this week: FREEDOM OF RELIGION

One bright summer day in July 1986, I was traveling with a vanload of Boy Scouts to a national conference in Michigan. I drove north on Interstate 75 through the rolling green cornfields of Ohio. Every small town had a cluster of silos, communities of modest homes, and always a church or two. It was America the way I had always thought of our country. I was with Boy Scouts driving through amber waves of grain in the heartland All along the way were symbols of religious faith – red brick or white wooden churches.

Near Toledo, Ohio, we crossed a high bridge. As we made our descent on the other side, I was startled by the sight that suddenly appeared before me. In the middle of a cornfield, was an imposing, gleaming Islamic mosque, its shining dome surrounded by four tall minarets. I had seen mosques in other places in the world, especially on a visit I made to Egypt as a teenager. But seeing a mosque in an Ohio cornfield took me by surprise. On that day, my vision of America expanded. My understanding of freedom of religion was stretched and enlarged.

Although many of the original thirteen colonies were established by the founders to escape religious persecution, they were not always tolerant of other forms of worship. For example, Roger Williams, a Baptist, created a new colony in Rhode Island to escape persecution in the Puritan-dominated colony of Massachusetts.

Among the original colonies, South Carolina was one of the most open to religious diversity. South Carolina was founded, not for religious freedom, but as a commercial enterprise. The eight Lord Proprietors knew that it was good business to allow people who were willing to work to enter the colony. Religious freedom was a part of the bargain. A tour of downtown Charleston today reveals a variety of places of worship ranging from the French Huguenot Church to First Scots Presbyterian Church to Beth Elohim, one of the first synagogues in America.

Freedom of religion is codified in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which declares “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” That simple statement is the basis for the freedom that some call a fundamental human right.

When I was in the tenth grade my homeroom was a teacher new to Spartanburg High School. He taught physics and seemed to have little interest in our homeroom class. He took the roll and kept order until the bell rang for the first period class. There was a Holy Bible on the desk. I’ll never forget that one the first day of school, he picked up the Bible, looked at it, and tossed it in the trash can. We were all astounded!

That was his first and last year at Spartanburg High School. The man was actually just a few years ahead of his time. The United Sates Supreme Court has been vigilant in forbidding public schools to interfere with Americans’ constitutional right to follow their own consciences when it comes to religion. In 1962, the justices ruled that official prayer had no place in public education.

When North Carolina Senator Sam Erwin, a strong defender of the Constitution, was asked his opinion about the place of prayer in public schools, the wise statesman quipped, “There will always be prayer in public schools as long as there are algebra tests.”

Few issues in American public life have created more controversy than religion and public education. Ninety percent of America’s youngsters attend public schools. These students come from homes that represent many different religious beliefs. The Supreme Court decision emphasized the imperative that public schools respect the beliefs of everyone. The schools can best do this by not sponsoring religious worship. Students are free to pray as they choose, privately.

Senator Erwin stressed America’s public schools should be welcoming to all children and decisions about religious education should be left to parents and to their places of worship.

Disrespect for another’s religious freedom has been the cause of unholy wars and horrible atrocities. The Crusades, the Inquisitions, and the Holocaust are but a few examples. When freedom of religion is not a value, countries have become embroiled in centuries of conflict

Harvard professor, Lawrence Kohlberg, studied moral development in many different cultures. He asserted that there is one moral precept that is common to all. Though it is stated differently from one group to another, the basic concept is the Golden Rule. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Treat the other person the way you want to be treated.

Camp Croft, in Spartanburg County, was a United States Army training facility during World War II. Following the war, the Army decommissioned the camp. Four buildings, all military chapels, were made available for purchase. The Baptists bought two, and the Methodists purchased two. Two of the structures were moved to new locations. One, situated near Fairforest Creek on Highway 56, became Golightly Methodist Church. The other relocated building was moved to Duncan Park and named Morningside Baptist Church. The chapels that remained on the original site became Croft Baptist Church and St. Luke’s Methodist Church.

In 1946, my dad was asked by First Baptist Church to begin a mission church in one of the old army chapels. After seven years of hard work, the mission became Croft Baptist Church. Much of the refurbishing of the chapel was completed with building materials from the family business, Neely Lumber Company.

Years later another house of worship was built in the Camp Croft area, less than a mile from Croft Baptist Church. My dad remembers the day when a man of Asian extraction entered the lumberyard to purchase materials to build a Buddhist temple. Over a period of several months, the man returned often, sometimes bringing Buddhist monks with him, to buy building products.

When the bright yellow temple was completed, the saffron-robed monks invited my dad to visit their new place of worship. Dad took a grandson along. The grandson observed, “The same lumberyard that provided materials for the Baptist Church, supplied materials for the Buddhist Temple. Both faiths have a place to worship in freedom.”

Perhaps only in America can a Baptist deacon visit a Buddhist temple and take delight in their shared sense of religious liberrty. It can only happen when people live by the Golden Rule.

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