By Joseph L. Conn
I was at a holiday dinner party in Philadelphia over the weekend, and the Austrian history professor sitting next to me asked what I did for a living. I explained my work with Americans United for Separation of Church and State and waited for his response.
He smiled wryly and said his fellow Europeans had solved the church-state problem long ago.
“The Peace of Augsburg in 1555 fixed everything for us,” he said, tongue planted firmly in cheek. “Each prince decided what religion he wanted to be and everyone in the principality then was given a choice. You could profess the faith of your prince, or you could move somewhere else.
“It was a great step forward,” my professor friend said. “Before this treaty, you followed the religion recommended by the government or you were executed!”
Ironically, the very next day, a whiff of Augsburg-style church-state policy appeared in the pages of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
The Borough Council of Point Pleasant Beach, N.J., apparently has not gotten the word that government doesn’t decide religious matters for its citizens any more.
For years, the town clerk began council meetings by reciting the “Our Father,” a Christian prayer also known as the Lord’s Prayer. After local resident Sharon Cadalzo complained, council members moved instead to a moment of silence.
But that wise step in the right direction was reversed recently, and council members have decided to give their own prayers.
According to the Associated Press, Councilman Raymond Cervino’s Nov. 30 invocation was this: “God, we beseech you to provide us with the wisdom to make the correct decisions on this night and all the days going forward. In your name, amen.” When he finished the prayer, he crossed himself.
Cervino later complained that the dropping of the opening prayer was “political correctness out of control.”
“The majority, to me, still means something,” he said. “I think whatever the majority decides, that’s the way I’m going to go.”
Well, no, Mr. Cervino, you’re quite wrong. This is not about political correctness, it’s about constitutional correctness. In America, we keep religion and government separate, and every American is free to follow his or her own conscience about matters of religion. When it comes to decisions about religious faith, the majority emphatically does not rule, and the government doesn’t make those decisions for us.
The American Civil Liberties Union has sued Point Pleasant Beach on Sharon Cadalzo’s behalf. A state court review of the matter is scheduled for Friday. Let’s hope that she and the ACLU prevail.
Plaintiff Cadalzo told one local television station, the “our father in heaven” addressed in Point Pleasant Beach’s original prayer is “not my father. My father lives on Long Island.”
In an ACLU press release, Cadalzo explained, “People of all faiths and beliefs should feel welcome at public meetings. It’s a matter of fairness. No member of the community should feel that their beliefs exclude them from public life.”
And thanks to the U.S. Constitution, Cadalzo shouldn’t have to move to another town where her beliefs about religion are in the majority and endorsed by the government. Come on, Point Pleasant Beach. This is the 21st century. We’ve advanced far beyond the 1555 Peace of Augsburg – haven’t we?