Separation of church and state

By Sharon Carson

Journalist Bill Moyers recently tackled the controversy over federally mandated health in­surance coverage for contra­ception. In a piece called “Freedom of and From Religion” (http://bill­ Moyers said: “So here we are once again, arguing over how to honor religious liberty without it becoming the liberty to impose on others moral beliefs they don’t share.”

Coercive fusions of Church-State authority are prohibited under the U.S. Constitution: citizens should be “free from” state-imposed religion. At the same time, our free expression of religion is also protected under the same Constitution.

The inherent tension between these freedoms requires constant, careful and deliberative negotiation in a pluralistic democracy inhabited by millions of people. Moyers points us to the difficult problem of medi­ating between conflicting claims to “religious liberty” in a pluralistic so­ciety with secular and constitutional standards for law. At the same time, he clearly embraces the reality of re­ligious pluralism.

North Dakota history illuminates the reality, complexity, and positive value of religious pluralism, includ­ing of course the right to be non-re­ligious. Regional history also reveals the conflict that can erupt when val­ues collide irreconcilably or when one religious community seeks to use civil law in the “public square” to forcibly impose its theological world­view on other citizens.

But even granted those conflicts, religious pluralism has always been part of the state’s history.

For example, Jewish history in the region is longstanding. Synagogues in Grand Forks and Fargo remain home to diverse congregations. Over the years, local Jewish communities have faced anti-Semitic harassment as well as broad community support. B’Nai Israel in Grand Forks main­tains an excellent website, including histories of regional Jewish commu­nities:

“Settler narratives” by Jewish writers recount their experience in North Dakota and the upper plains. Two particularly good ones are So­phie Trupin’s Dakota Diaspora and Rachel Caloff’s Rachel Calof’s Story. The Caloff edition published in 1995 by Indiana University Press also con­tains an excellent essay by J. Sanford Rikoon called “Jewish Farm Settle­ments in America’s Heartland.”

Ross, North Dakota is home to what is still believed to be the first mosque built in the United States. First built in 1929, there is now a newer structure on the same site – a beautiful “little mosque on the prai­rie.” The Ross mosque was featured on NPR’s “Weekend Edition” ( Sep­tember 12, 2010) when host Liane Hansen asked Aman Ali and Bassam Tariq about their “Ramadan Roadtrip” visit to Ross. The audio interview and a full transcript are still available on­line at:

There are other active mosques and Islamic centers all around the state, and regional Muslims have faced the same social pressures post-9/11 as American Muslims nationwide. The Islamic Center of North Dakota spon­sors a detailed website reaching out specifically to rural Muslims:

Even a cursory look at the diverse history of Christianity in our state plops us smack dab into an extensive project of “comparative religion.” To pick just one crosscurrent in regional Christian history, many North Dako­ta Christians, past and present, have identified as “evangelical.” Within that sphere, there has been remark­able diversity across time and place in denominational affiliation, core the­ology, cultural perspective, political viewpoint and related immigrant and tribal history. In recent years, pro­gressive evangelical Christians across several denominations have found themselves in sharp and sustained theological and political conflict with some of the more socially conservative members of their own denominations. These conflicts have revolved around basic church theology and values, around political priorities and around conflicting approaches to social ethics.

In these political times, and especial­ly during this inflamed election sea­son, any one person or group claiming to speak theologically or politically for “Evangelicals” or “Christian values” should be measured against the reality of this diversity.

The region is also home to diverse American Indian traditional religious communities: Lakota, Dakota, Nakota, Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Ojibway/Chippewa, and others. Within all of these tribal communities, there have been historical changes in traditional religion, with evolving religious prac­tices and sometimes differing or con­flicting interpretations among tribal members as to the meaning of tradi­tion and specific rituals.

Given North Dakota’s vibrant and sometimes contentious religious and philosophical pluralism, it will be in­teresting to track what comes next as some of our legislators in D.C. lobby for the 2012 version of a federal “Reli­gious Freedom Restoration Act.”

Nominally aimed at protecting re­ligious liberty and “freedom of con­science,” this effort seems quite nar­rowly aimed to impact only one set of issues related to federal health care mandates and is missing reference to other instances where religious liberty has been explicitly inhibited by federal law.

For example, advocates of the Re­ligious Freedom Restoration Act have not challenged the dismal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a federal law which uses the broad enforcement power of “the state” to sanction and protect only one form of religiously sanctioned marriage but prevents other equally religious folk from hav­ing their equally sanctified marriages equally recognized under civil law.

Maybe Congress just hasn’t gotten around to this part of the legislation yet and our representatives are craft­ing the “What’s Good for The Goose” amendment as we speak.

But while we wait, maybe it’s also time to shift the paradigm for these debates and more often get “the state” altogether out of the business of selec­tively sanctioning only some forms of religious freedom at the expense of others. We in North Dakota have some work to do along these lines.

Comments are closed.