Religious freedom in America is under attack by critics whose “artificially strict” view of the separation of church and state threatens to drive traditional religious values from public life, Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III said Sunday.
At a prayer breakfast here attended by about 100 members of the Christian Legal Society, Meese warned: “There are ideas that have gained influence in some parts of our society, particularly in some important and sophisticated circles, that are opposed to religious freedom, indeed that have an attitude of hostility towards religion in our country.”
The attorney general added: “By gradually removing from public education and public discourse all references to traditional religion . . . and by substituting instead the jargon and the ritual and the morality of cult and of self, we run the risk of subordinating all other religions to a new secular religion. . . .”
The attorney general spoke in one of a series of appearances scheduled during the annual meetings of the State Bar of California and the California Judges Assn. Meese is to address the judges group today and then return to Washington.
Although he did not identify the critics of religious freedom during his half-hour talk, Meese said: “A great deal of the activity in this field has taken place in courtrooms, in legal circles and in the name of the law.”
Meese said the First Amendment to the Constitution, which prevents Congress from establishing a national religion or interfering with religious worship, has been widely misinterpreted.
“In its application, the principle of neutrality towards all religions has often been transformed by some into a hostility toward anything religious,” Meese said. “The danger is that religion, which has been such an important force in our country, could lose its social and historical, indeed, its public character,” he said.
“There are nations, we should remind ourselves, where religion has just this status, where the cause of religion, and its expression, has been reduced to something that people can only do behind locked doors,” Meese added.
The Constitution does not require the federal government to be indifferent to religion, Meese said, let alone hostile.
“It begs credulity to argue that the value system most reflecting the beliefs and sentiments of the American people has to be primarily secular and cannot be based upon religious values,” Meese said.
The Reagan Administration has fought to preserve religious freedom in the United States, Meese said, by backing proposals that would:
- Make public school facilities available for use by student religious groups.
- Allow the government to dispense tax benefits to parents whose children attend parochial schools.
- Permit government financial aid for students who are studying to be priests, ministers or rabbis.