Freedom of Religion

30th June, 1998

Freedom of religion is a hot topic at the moment. The Religious Freedom Amendment (also know as the Istook Amendment or RFA) was narrowly defeated in the US Congress after many months of intense debate. The amendment would have allowed religious activities to be undertaken on government property, especially in schools.

There has always been a strict enforcement of the practice the separation of church and state in the United States. In recent months there have been several court rulings enforcing this separation. These have included cases involving the removal of religious symbols from local government crests and buildings, the refusal to allow student prayers at official school functions and the much publicized case of the Alabama judge ordered to remove a copy of the Ten Commandments from his courtroom.

These events have been used by members of the religious right as examples of the growing discrimination against religion in general. The issue of school prayer is one that is often used to highlight this point. However, there are many who would argue that the backing of legislation such as the RFA by groups such as the Christian Coalition is more of an attempt to remove the protections granted by the constitution to minority religions and allow them to force their beliefs into schools.

At the present time, students are able to participate in private students-led prayers on school grounds. This freedom is guarenteed by The Equal Access Act. This act allows students to organise and publicise religious events, such as student led prayers, that are held in non-teaching times, such as before and after schools. Student should be given equal access to facilities for religious events as given to those students organising non-religious activities.

While the initial bill was defeated, the next day another similar bill was presented to the Congress. As such the issue of religion and how it is to be practiced is still a hot topic in the United States. This is especially true since there is now legislation in Congress that would allow the United States to implement trade and other restrictions against countries that are seen to restrict freedom of religion.

The First Amendment of the US Constitution has always been a vital protection for Pagans in the United States. Any alteration to the Constitution could have grave consequences and Pagans fear that this particular set of legislation is aimed at establishing the US as a "Christian" nation, to the detriment of other faiths.

In Australia, while not as heated, the issue of freedom of religion is also one of current discussion. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commision last year called for submissions in response to a paper called, Free to Believe? Several individuals and Pagan organisations submitted written responses.

This paper deals with the current standing of freedom of religion in Australia and was prompted by the need for Australia to reform its laws in response to the United Nations - The Declaration the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. Australia is a signatory to this declaration and at present its legal protections fall short of that called for by the declaration.

Many feel that there is no need for specific protection for freedom of religion. They feel that present laws should be enough, or that present law could be expanded to present fuller protection.

However, for Pagans as a group that is still struggling to achieve acceptance as a religion, we need the protection of specific legal cover dealing with religion. While the Australian constitution gives some protection, there have been many cases where this has not been enough. People are still losing their children and jobs due to their beliefs and have little legal recourse.

The issue is still obviously alive and well in many parts of the world. It will bare close scrutiny, especially within the Pagan community.


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