The University stands as an argument for religious freedom. Activities of worship, religious study, evangelism and spiritual questioning are more than tolerated — they’re a common part of many students’ lives. Every spring and fall, public spaces on campus fill with ministers, preachers and laypeople announcing their faith, or the lack thereof. Students exercise their freedoms by hanging banners from Coffman Union. Campus ministries are active and often work together. Most students, most of the time, can take holy days off without sanction. This community usually lives up to the promises of the state and federal bills of rights. Religion here is free from both repression and coercion.
The University is typical of public institutions in this regard, so the University offers a good test case for the Religious Freedom Amendment passed by a House committee last week. Proponents of the measure say that in the last 30 years courts have gone too far in separating church and state. Activist judges, they charge, have all but banned religion from public life. The only way to override the Supreme Court is to amend the Constitution, and that’s what some religious conservatives now seek to do. Their amendment reads, “The people’s right to pray and recognize their religious beliefs, heritage or traditions on public property, including schools, shall not be infringed. The Government shall not require any person to join in prayer or other religious activity, initiate or designate school prayers, discriminate against religion, or deny equal access to a benefit on account of religion.”
That language sounds sensible. But consider its effects on campus. Under current constitutional interpretations, a group of Christian students would have every right to display a nativity scene on Northrop Mall. No student is required by the University to use the Mall, so the display doesn’t force a particular religious view on anybody. And as long as the administration also allows other displays of a similar size and duration, the University favors no particular religion.
A nativity scene in the Office of the Registrar, though, should and can be banned. Students who wish to register in person must go to Williamson Hall. This makes them a captive audience assembled by the state. And the ease of Internet registration offers no relief. Having to avoid the registrar’s office because of religion is an unconstitutional burden. Furthermore, space all but eliminates the University’s ability to remain neutral. There’s not enough room for the nativity scene, a menorah and a Shinto shrine. The University would have to choose, expressing an unconstitutional religious preference.
The Religious Freedom Amendment would change all that. Students would have the right to use all public property as a soapbox for their faith. Nativity scenes could be erected in classrooms. The University’s ubiquitous itinerant preachers could come indoors and preach at students in line at the Office of Financial Aid. There are places where some kinds of religious display must be out of bounds. The amendment would erase those lines, and the University would be a worse place because of it. Although well-intended, the proposal would hurt religious freedom. Congress should let the Constitution stand.