Bill Of Rights Is A Tattered Document

THE WAY IT IS

On Their 200th Birthday, First10 Amendments Are Still Misunderstood

December 22, 1991|By Jeff Griffith

Last week, we marked the 200th anniversary of the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution.

I say "marked" because we have less to celebrate than we might.

Racism and intolerance are as endemic to our culture as ever. Sexism rages. Homophobia is stylish in many communities.

What's new?

Closer to home, religious intolerance, always sub rosa in our county, has surfaced in the usual way. So much for the First Amendment.

A recent survey commissioned by the American Bar Association reveals that only 33 percent of us even know what the Bill of Rights is. AsPogo oft noted, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

First Amendment? Yes, the framers of the Constitution had this rational fear ofgovernments that attempt to impose religious orthodoxy on their citizens.

Such behavior is part of our racial memory, whatever race wemight be. Read the histories of virtually every culture on the globe.

So to these shores flocked the unorthodox. Puritans. Huguenots. Quakers. Catholics. Jews.

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," directed the framers.

They and their parents and their parents' parents had been among those seeking sanctuary.

And millions believed. Maryland was established as "The Free State." The settlers who founded the "Free State" were Catholics seeking freedom to practice their beliefs.

Now here is what our neighbors are saying about religious freedom: "Since this is a democracy where the majority would rule and we have freedom of choice, those who do not agree with the majority have the freedom of choice to move."

Just like the Puritans, Huguenots, Quakers and Catholics. They moved. Too bad Hitler didn't give six million Jews the same choice.

Irony: the above-quoted statement appeared in these pages last week, on the day after the 200th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. Pogo was a prophet.

Letters and a guest column in these pages over the last weeks had set essentiallythe same tone:

Carroll's towns should spend tax dollars on Christmas lights because the "majority" of countians are "Christian."

Said one letter writer, "When minorities move to a community where old-fashioned traditions are carried out and they don't like it, that's tough."

Whatever happened to the old-fashioned tradition of First Amendment freedom of religion -- to say nothing of freedom of speech?

The attitude these bigots espouse is precisely the reason this nation and this state exist.

Article 36 of the Declaration of Rights of Maryland requires, among other things, that "no person ought by law to be molested in . . . person or estate, on account of . . . religious persuasion." In other words, the state, the laws, the majority, may not impose religious views on the minority.

Unfortunately, thehostility of the small-minded toward the unorthodox is merely un-American, not unconstitutional. The Constitution and the Declaration of Rights protect us only from our governments, not from ourselves.

Those among us who refer to ourselves as "Christians" would do well, therefore, to look to another source of direction and to heed Christ'sadmonition to "render unto Caesar," so to keep separate church and state.

In the meantime, let us hope that this season of the winter solstice, Christmas, Hanukkah, and deep discounts might generate somemeasure of goodwill toward those who think and believe differently than the majority.

They are the very reason this nation exists: Puritans, Huguenots, Quakers, Catholics, Jews; and if my grasp of our history and diversity were more comprehensive, many other groups would join this incomplete list.

Let us not confuse majority rule with the tyranny of the majority. And let us not confuse public Christianity with the real thing.

We have met the enemy. And he is us.

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