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By T. Jeremy Gunn

The Constitution’s First Amendment guarantees that political candidates, like all Americans, have a right to talk about religion and their religious beliefs.  This year many candidates for political office increasingly have been exercising that constitutional right and talking about their faith.  

Of course along with the increasing discussion of faith, there are increasing complaints – also constitutionally protected – that candidates are cynically using religion to make themselves appear more appealing to voters.  Whether more talk about religion and more accusations about cynicism and hypocrisy is good for the public is up to the voters to decide.

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The Constitution also has also been clear, for more than two hundred years, that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

Some candidates who like to talk about their religion seem, however, not to understand the meaning of the word “no.”  They are happy to favor a religious test for public officials -- as long as their religion is included.  

Belief in monotheism has now been proposed as a necessary qualification for someone who wants to be president.  So if you are a believer in the Dalai Lama’s religion, Buddhism, this country was not meant for you.  If you are a follower of Mahatma Gandhi’s religion, Hinduism, – just check your American dream at the door.  

Candidate Romney wants the door of religious tolerance opened just wide enough to let him sneak through, but is quite ready to close it when someone else comes knocking.  

Others want the door open wide enough to let their candidate in, but to keep Mitt Romney out.

The same constitutional standard that protects Governor Romney’s right to be elected and serve as president of the United States also protects the right of all Americans – Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Hindu, Secular Humanist, Zoroastrian, Jew, and Muslim – to serve their country.

No religious test means no religious test.

A religious leader from Massachusetts, who was involved in politics, had something useful to say about this – 200 years ago.  When the Massachusetts constitutional ratification convention met in 1788, the Reverend Mr. Shute defended the “no religious test” clause against those who thought that a religious test should be added as a requirement for public office.

“Nor is there to me any conceivable advantage, sir, that would result to the whole from such a test. Unprincipled and dishonest men will not hesitate to subscribe to any thing that may open the way for their advancement, and put them into a situation the better to execute their base and iniquitous designs. Honest men alone, therefore, however well qualified to serve the public, would be excluded by it, and their country be deprived of the benefit of their abilities.”

Exactly the point.  We should be electing candidates who are honorable, honest, and principled, not those who manipulate religious language to get themselves elected.

Some political leaders, from Governor Romney to Senator Obama, have raised the red herring that “some” want to do away with “religion in the public square” or the equally odious notion that “religion has no role to play in public life.”

These straw men – scarecrows – with code-word undertones are nonsense and should be laid to rest.

The issue is not, and never has been, whether religion should play a role in the “public square.”  Religion, along with philosophy, science, literature, and public service always has and always will play a vital role in the public square in America.  Religion is pervasive on the public airwaves – and it is constitutionally protected.  Religious books and magazines freely, and constitutionally, circulate throughout the country.  Religious buildings are visible throughout the public square, whether it is the Mormon Temple on the Washington beltway or the National Cathedral at the highest point on the Washington skyline.  All of this is constitutionally protected and no one is taking it away – not even straw men.

The issue is not “religion in the public square,” the issue is government-sponsored religion.  A cross visible from public sidewalks on church grounds is constitutionally protected speech.  But if you want your cross erected in front of the courthouse, you have crossed the line.   The issue is not whether there is religion in “public.” it is whether the government should be in the business of promoting the religious beliefs of some.

Which part of “no” in “no religious test” is difficult to understand?  And why are some candidates arguing with straw men?

T. Jeremy Gunn is Director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.

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Originally posted to ACLU on Tue Dec 11, 2007 at 11:38 AM PST.

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