Whose Religion? Whose Laws?

Katherine Sorenson

The United States is an extremely diverse country with nearly every religion represented. However, when the U.S. country was created this was not the case. The people who wrote the constitution believed in the same religion and wrote laws to protect it. The Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. When this clause was written , what it actually meant was that the government cannot force everyone to practice the same religion or ban the practice of any recognized religion. This has allowed for the great diversity of religious practices in our country. But unfortunately, this diversity of religion among the general population is not reflected among our current politicians. Virtually everyone in the government calls themselves some sort of Christian; every president thus far has considered himself a Christian. And, many of our laws today still reflect the strong influence of Christianity in government today. The outlawing of abortion is supported by Christian religious groups across the country. Both supporters and opponents of the death penalty cite passages from the Bible in defense of their position, and the recent controversy over gay marriage arises directly from Christianity’s view that homosexuality is a sin. These laws as well as many other ethical standards, although promoted as good for the country and humanity as a whole, are deeply rooted in Christianity, a religion not everyone believes in. So the question arises: should citizens be required to follow laws based on the values of religion they do not follow? And more importantly: should laws be based on religion at all? I would argue that it is not right for government officials create laws based on personal religious beliefs. Not everyone believes the same thing and no one should be forced to accept the ethical values of someone else’s religion. Instead it is only fair to find more universal standards to base our laws on, ethics that make sense to all citizens. Instead, we should attempt to find universal ethical standards that apply to the population that they represent.

The Constitution provides for the freedom of all people to practice any religion they want, and every religion has its own ethical code that believers are required to follow. So what happens when a country’s laws conflict with a person’s religious beliefs? For example, in some Hindu communities, a widow is often expected to commit suicide by throwing herself onto her husband’s funeral pyre. But in the United States suicide is illegal. So a Hindu widow must choose between her religious beliefs and obeying the law. Legally, it is unconstitutional for the government to make laws that would prohibit someone’s religious practices. But we cannot make suicide legal for Hindu widows and still illegal for everyone else. So does that mean that suicide should made legal for everyone? That could then raise the rate of assisted suicide, and then murders could be mistaken for assisted suicide, and all sorts of other problems could arise from that action. We have to make laws that will be fair and just for everyone, but at the same time we need to respect people’s freedom to follow the practices of any religion they choose. With so many people believing so many different things with such a diverse population with even more diverse ideas. It seems like an impossible task. But legally, it would be unconstitutional to do otherwise. So the only way to begin to achieve this goal is to have a complete separation of religion and law. The two must have absolutely nothing to do with each other, and we must find something else to base our laws on.

Everyone has values, some sort of moral code they live by. Many people’s values are based on their religious beliefs. Others do not believe in any religion at all, and their ethics are based on something else entirely. It is not right that non-religious people are forced to obey laws that were made to please a god they do not even believe exists. It is not right that religious people are forced to live to please another person’s god just because that person is in power. People have the freedom to please any god or no god as they choose. Laws should not be made to please any god. They should be made to protect the country’s citizens. Laws against murder and theft should not be made because the Bible says “thou shalt not kill” and “thou shalt not steal.” They should be made because killing and stealing are wrong, because they hurt society and because it is important to protect people from these things. Laws should be made based on what is commonly considered good for society and not based on whose god says what.

However, separating law from religion creates another problem: what are our ethics based on if not religion? I do not believe there are any universal values to base ethics on. Our country depends on a system of democracy to elect our leaders and our laws. This seems to be the fairest way to decide things, but it is also very dangerous. There is no guarantee that the majority is always correct, especially when it comes to right and wrong. Right or wrong is simply a point of view and viewpoints are easily changed. Right now in this country the majority of people agree that murder is wrong, but they do not agree over whether or not the death penalty is murder. If this country is already divided over what is and what is not murder, it is possible that we may some day be divided or whether or not murder is really wrong. If the majority of people one day decide that murder is not wrong, does that mean it really stops being wrong? Although basing laws on majority rule rather than religion seems fairer, it still creates a lot of problems. There is still the issue of forcing people to abide by laws they did not vote for and do not believe are right. If it is unconstitutional for citizens to be required to follow laws based on a religion they do not believe in, then is it alright to force them to follow laws that most people believe in, just because we say so? The fact is, not everyone is going to agree on any particular law because there are no universal principles inside or outside religion that we can base laws on.

It would be much easier to simply let everyone follow their own ethical code; just let them do whatever they want rather than trying to make everyone do the same thing. Unfortunately society cannot function this way. We need guidelines for everyone to follow, whether they want to or not. In an ideal world everyone could follow their own religion in peace, and we would not have any conflicts. But the world we are living in is far from ideal and because of that we need laws that protect everyone and some people will have to put aside their personal religious beliefs to obey those laws. It is more important for society as a whole that people are protected and live their lives so that society can function properly, than that people follow every single aspect of their personal religion, which affects no one but them. Realistically speaking, we cannot find an ethical code that everyone will follow willingly. The ideal of universal principles is impossible. So rather than trying to find something that everyone can agree on, we need to accept the fact that laws will be created that not everyone will agree with. But whether it is religious or other personal values that are causing this conflict, people must put those values aside and obey the laws their country has set for them until, of course, the time comes that they have the opportunity to change them. For example, although some religions allow the practice of polygamy, the United States has outlawed it. So even though a particular person’s religion may allow him to have more than one wife, he will have to move to another country where this is allowed. If he stays here, he must forego this religious practice and obey the law. Even though we may not always agree with the ethics that our laws are based on, we must accept and obey them to keep society functioning properly, while at the same time continuing to try to change the laws we do not agree with. That is one of the greatest freedoms our country allows us. If we do not like how the laws are structured now, we can change them. But until the laws are changed to our liking, we must put aside personal values and obey the laws, the ethics already in place.

When religion and the law collide, conflicts inevitably occur. In an ideal society everyone could follow their personal religion and it would cause no conflicts with the law, it would not make a difference to anyone. But in our society this is impossible. There is no one religion we can all agree on and there are no universal principles on which we can base laws that will please everyone. We must instead accept the ethics society sets for us and obey the laws based on those ethics until the time comes when we can change the laws we disagree with.