December 15, 2018 – Bill of Rights Day
Column written by Allison Mahaley
I saw a Facebook post this weekend from a friend. She was relaying her daughter’s experience in a local elementary school of being asked if she were a Christian by a young classmate, and then being told she was going to Hell for not being saved. You may think such an experience is just part of growing up, but I believe it should not be, and certainly was not a part of my growing up. My parents believed religious beliefs were private, and I was never once asked about religion in my public school.
Unfortunately, rhetoric about America being a Christian nation is on the rise and reached a fever pitch in the last presidential election. The truth is, America was not founded as a Christian nation, but was in fact founded as a free nation by Europeans fleeing all manner of persecution.
Similar to colonizers around the world, these newcomers quickly became oppressors in the New World and established each colony for their own religious tradition and cultural norms. They settled in areas by way of violence, negotiation, and persuasion, which in effect, forced their adversaries further west and to other colonies. The Congregationalists settled in Rhode Island and Massachusetts; the Quakers founded Pennsylvania; the Catholics founded Maryland; and the Anglicans and Baptists headed South.
Because each New England colony did in fact have state-sponsored religion, the ruling class wanted to ensure that the newly formed United States would not infringe upon that freedom. The first part of the very First Amendment in our Bill of Rights reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” During the contentious debate in 1788, North Carolina held out and pressured the framers of the Constitution to include a Bill of Rights. Ironically, that important historical event happened in Hillsborough, just a few blocks from where a young girl was bullied about her religious beliefs some 230 years later.
In theory, the Bill of Rights, along with the other nine amendments, expanded individual liberty, and serves to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority. It is critical for all citizens to live out these values by participating in our democracy and to encourage equity and justice for all. One of the most important rights we enjoy as Americans is our freedom of conscience – the freedom to worship, or not. The notion of America as a Christian nation runs contrary to that most basic freedom, and during this season when the marketing of Christmas is literally everywhere, it is all the more important for us to remember that our constitutional right to freedom of faith is also what makes this country great.
The Orange County Bill of Rights Defense Committee and Orange County Peace Coalition are sponsoring the annual reading of the Bill of Rights at 12:00 p.m. on Saturday, December 15, at the Peace and Justice Plaza in Chapel Hill. In Hillsborough, all church bells will sound in celebration and recognition of the Bill of Rights.
As a member of the Human Relations Committee, I hope you will join me in celebrating our freedom and commitment to the equal treatment of all Orange County residents regardless of their religious beliefs.