January 12, 2011

The most recent American Religious Identification Survey was released two years ago by Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, which revealed that 34.2 million Americans (15.0%) claim no religion. Of which, 1.6% explicitly describe themselves as atheist or agnostic, double the previous 2001 ARIS survey figure. The highest occurrence of "nones", according to the 2008 ARIS report, reside in Vermont, with 34% surveyed.

A casual road trip through the towns and municipalities in that beautiful state will display a number of old church buildings once used as houses of worship now either left abandoned or converted into town halls, senior citizens centers, libraries, and antique shops. In the last thirty years alone the number of worshippers attending church services has dropped over 70 percent.

Even the attitudes of the average citizen of the Green Mountain state, although most friendly and non-antagonistic, is definitely not sympathetic toward religion. This could not be illustrated better than with the recent ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit in Byrne v. Rutledge, a lawsuit that concluded Monday, in which the First Amendment was used to protect the free speech of one of the few.

Vermont, like many states, allows drivers to obtain a vanity license plate to express their viewpoints on a variety of subjects—from showing support for a sports team (“GOYANKS”) to words of inspiration for fellow motorists (“BEJOYFL”)—as long as the message does not exceed seven letters or numbers.

Enter Shawn Bayne, a Christian and one of about thirty people who attend a Baptist church affiliated with the Green Mountain Baptist Association and the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. Back in 2005, Bayne applied to the Vermont DMV for the tag “JN36TN,” a creative reference to the popular Bible verse, John 3:16. But Vermont denied his request, citing a state law prohibiting vanity plates that reference religion or deity.

On appeal, after the Vermont District Court ruled against Byrne, the 2nd Circuit recognized that even a seven-letter long vanity license plate provides a place for the citizens of Vermont to express their opinions. Since other citizens were permitted to express a variety of messages on their vanity plates, Byrne could not be denied from expressing his message simply because it was religious.

The court’s decision is an important step in reversing the growing trend of censoring religious viewpoints in public debate. For hundreds of years, religious speeches and writings have provided an integral perspective on the major issues our nation has faced—from John Witherspoon’s sermons advocating for American independence, to Dr. Martin Luther King’s letters and speeches that looked to the early Christians’ examples of civil disobedience against unjust laws. The American ideals of liberty, equality, and justice for all under the law are not new innovations unique to our country; they are the byproduct of thousands of years of religious thought and experimentation by many of the greatest minds of humanity.

Yet more and more, men and women of different faiths are told that their opinions, which often represent the opinions of millions of Americans, are not welcome—that religion has no place in the marketplace of ideas. By silencing these important voices solely because of their religious viewpoint, we forfeit the wisdom contained in them and lose the richness of diversity that has made our nation a beacon of freedom for the entire world.

Now more than ever, as our nation debates difficult issues such as immigration and the role of government, religious viewpoints must be afforded equal participation. Sometimes these ideas will be persuasive; other times they will not. What should matter to the government is not whether the religious viewpoint ultimately influences the outcome of the debate; what matters is that the religious viewpoint is included.

The 2nd Circuit got it right: when the government opens up a place for its citizens to express their viewpoint, whether it be a license plate or a public park, “it cannot target for exclusion those who wish to comment…on the grounds that they wish to do so from a religious viewpoint.” We must never forget that if the government can censor a seven-letter license plate because of its religious message, it is only a few steps away from censoring a 700-page book or 7,000-word speech for the same reasons.

We believe that the Constitution of the United States speaks for itself. There is no need to rewrite, change or reinterpret it to suit the fancies of special interest groups or protected classes.