Strict Church and State Separation Waning, Say Pluralism Panelists

Press contact: Jim O'Neill, (212) 854-1584
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 (October 12, 2007) New York --Strict separation of church and state is waning as the country grapples with funding faith-based initiatives and accommodates the religious beliefs of an increasingly diverse population. In a broad cultural shift, public funding of religious organizations that provide services to society is gaining acceptance, said Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, the incoming director of the Law and Religion Program at University of Buffalo School of Law.
The large increase in immigrants from Asia – Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others –has broadened the conversation on pluralism in this country and increased the requests for government accommodation of their religious principles, said Columbia Law School Professor R. Kent Greenawalt '65.
Sullivan, Greenawalt and James Tully, University of Victoria (Canada) professor of political science, law, and philosophy, spoke as panelists at the opening session of  the three-day conference After Pluralism: Reimaging Models of Inter-religious Engagement at the University on October 11.
Greenawalt cited a “huge change in personal attitudes” during the past century in which “we’ve made progress” in treating people with “a sense of equality and respect.”
“Should we cease treating religion itself as special?” is the question he posed rhetorically. “Should it ever matter whether your reasons for being a conscientious objector are religious ones in how you’re treated by the state?”
Although stating religion warrants special treatment under the [Constitution’s] Establishment Clause, “there are some serious concerns in allowing religious groups accommodations and concessions,” he added. These include the possibility of bias against minority groups if the courts are unfamiliar with their religious practices, and the government’s need to determine whether requests for accommodation are sincere.
“I can’t imagine the courts giving in to all claims,” he said, “but refusal to consider claims [based on religion] may constitute discrimination.”
The First Amendment religion clauses have become anachronistic in a society which accepts pluralism, [the belief that everyone is entitled to their own religion] Sullivan said. The concept of complete separation of church and state was based in the “anti-Catholic- tradition bias” in which this country was founded, she said, adding that it’s no longer relevant now that “all Americans may claim the right to associate with religious communities as they see fit, and to mix and match religious traditions. This right includes the right not to have a religion.” There’s religious freedom without separation in the strictest sense, she said, commenting on recent shifts in U.S. Constitutional interpretation.
Speaking about the need to approach inter-religious dialogue with an attitude of openness and trust, Tully said such a demeanor would disarm your counterpart in the discussion and make meaningful dialogue possible.
“Intolerance leads to antagonism, insurgency and war,” he said.
Courtney Bender, Columbia associate professor of religion, who introduced the panelists, said fostering meaningful discussions about religious diversity could be “messy business” but that religious interaction needs re-imagining in both academic and public conversations.