This week the ACLU of Arkansas filed suit on behalf of four Arkansas women challenging the constitutionality of a newly-installed monument of the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the Arkansas State Capitol.
The women, who are atheists and agnostics, are members of a walking and cycling club whose regular routes include the state capitol grounds, where they are now confronted with a shrine to a specific belief system that does not comport with their own.
The monument has made them feel like second-class citizens in their own community, and it’s a reminder of what happens when politicians use their official positions to promote their own personal religious beliefs.
By erecting a government-sponsored shrine to a specific set of religious tenets, Arkansas officials are undermining religious liberty and violating the constitutional rights of the people they’re supposed to serve.
Religious freedom has flourished in this country precisely because the government does not take sides on questions of faith. People are free to follow whatever religious doctrines they choose – or none at all – without coercion from government officials.
This government-sponsored shrine undermines that fundamental principle and sends a divisive message to members of minority faiths and nonbelievers that their government doesn’t represent them.
Too often, the ACLU’s position in these cases is misconstrued to be in opposition to religion, but nothing could be further from the truth. We filed this lawsuit not to limit religious liberty, but to protect it.
Individuals, churches and associations are free to post or not to post the Ten Commandments as they wish – and the ACLU will defend their right to do so. But those are decisions for individuals and religious communities, not government bureaucrats. There are many different belief systems, and many versions of the Ten Commandments, and our country was founded on the principle that it’s not the government’s role to endorse or oppose any of them. When the government gives special treatment to a certain religious faith, everyone’s religious liberty is threatened.
Our founders understood all too well the risks of a government that interferes with its citizens’ religious faith. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution states that the government “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” And in 1812, John Adams wrote that “nothing is more dreaded than the national government meddling with religion.”
These two complementary protections – the right to religious belief and expression and a guarantee that the government neither prefers religion over non-religion nor favors particular faiths over others – work hand in hand. They allow religious liberty and freedom of conscience to thrive and safeguard both religion and government from the undue influences of the other.
Arkansans deserve a government that upholds these constitutional principles and respects the religious freedom of all its citizens. Arkansas politicians should call off this unconstitutional religious crusade and stop putting their own personal religious beliefs ahead of their constituents’ constitutional rights.
Until then, the ACLU of Arkansas will continue to fight to safeguard the religious freedom and fundamental rights of every Arkansan – in the courts, in the Capitol, and in our communities.