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It's the policy, not the process

By Scott Tibbs, March 7, 2004

In his March 4th column for Hoosier Review, Nick Blesch comments on elected officials using religion to justify their policies and decisions. Blesch says:

Unless we are willing to assume that our political decisions should have a religious (and specifically Christian) basis and effectively forego the First Amendment, then neither what President Bush thinks God wants us to do nor what God may actually want us to do should have any bearing whatsoever on policy.

I respectfully disagree with Blesch's comment that policy decisions made in light of religious beliefs in any way forgoes the First Amendment. There is nothing in the First Amendment that says policies must have a completely secular justification. Whether or not something is in violation of our First Amendment depends on the constitutionality of the policy itself, not on the decision-making process used to arrive at that policy.

For example, one person may believe abortion should be abolished because it fundamentally violates human rights. Another may believe allowing abortion is inconsistent with the requirement in the 14th Amendment that all persons be given the equal protection under the law. Another individual may believe that Proverbs 24:11-12 commands protection of the unborn. There is not a religious undertone to the first two reasons. If the person who takes the third stance is elected into office and pushes a pro-life agenda, does that push "effectively forego the First Amendment"?

No, it does not. The First Amendment says that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof". It does not require that elected officials do not act on their religious beliefs when implementing policy. (Note that Blesch did not say a law passed or a policy implemented on the basis of a religious viewpoint violates the First Amendment. I am making a general statement here.)

Of course, not all policies based on religious beliefs are constitutional. In fact, many would not be. Someone who believes God commands black people be denied rights cannot implement this view into law as it violates the 14th Amendment. A law is to be judged on whether or not it, as written, is unconstitutional. The motivations of the person who implemented a policy or law does not determine its Constitutionality. A law that in and of itself does not violate Constitutional principles is not suddenly opposed to the letter or the spirit of the First Amendment if the motivations for passing that law are religious in nature.

There is another factor to consider. Is it a good idea for an elected official to use religion as a justification for policy and to speak about that justification publicly? As long as we are electing human beings to positions of political power, we will always have people who make decisions based on their religious beliefs. Deeply held religious views will always impact our leaders' decisions.

But what of an elected official speaking publicly about how his faith led to the decision he made? People disagree on religion all the time. Just as Congressman X may believe Policy A is the course God would have us pursue, Congressman Y may believe Policy B would be preferred by the Higher Power. The American people can sort through the arguments and make their decisions at the voting booth. So long as no Constitutional rights are actually violated, there is no problem with the mixing of politics and religion.