By: Laslo Boyd 

This week marks the celebration of both Passover and Easter.  These two religious observations are among the most important days of the year to Jews and Christians throughout the world.

Last week saw the 50th anniversary of the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, legislation which brought fundamental changes in the legal protections provided to African Americans in the United States.

Commemorations of the past are opportunities to reflect upon the significance of prior events for today’s world.  In some cases, they also can be motivation for recommitting to goals and values that were once so clearly important but may have become taken for granted over time.

I was reminded of a song, “Pass It On”, which was originally part of a documentary about the union movement in the 1960s.

Freedom never came like a bird on the wing

Never came down like rain in spring

Freedom, freedom, what a hard won thing

You've got to work for it, fight for it

Day and night for it

And every generation has got to win it again

Passover and Easter both have explicit references to renewal and recommitment.  They also remind worshipers of the efforts and sacrifices earlier generations made to win their rights to religious freedom.

In the United States, we enshrined that commitment in two separate sections of the 1st Amendment to the Constitution. One allows each of us to follow our own religious beliefs without intrusion from the government. The other proviso, often referred to as the “Establishment Clause,” clearly states that there will be no official religion in the United States.

Recently, members of the Carroll County Commissioners seem to have forgotten that second Constitutional provision when they began opening their official meetings with a specifically Christian prayer. Commission members blustered a bit after a Judge told them that they had to end the practice, but the Constitutional holding that church and state must be kept separate is a long-standing one.

However, as “Pass It On” suggests, each generation must be prepared to win again a battle that many had thought was long ago decided.

The authors of the 1st Amendment religious protections were well aware of the negative effects of official religion on people who held different views and of the importance of religious freedom for all. Europe before the settlement of the Colonies was filled with examples of brutal suppression of religious minorities, the reason why some settlers moved to this country in the first place.

Driving through Canton recently, I saw a bumper sticker that grabbed my attention.  “Government is Not God” was plastered on the rear of the car. My first reaction was that it was the perfect non-sequiter since I couldn’t think of anyone who has ever asserted that claim. More likely, of course, the owner of the bumper sticker was complaining that her or his view of religion had not been officially endorsed by government and imposed on the rest of us.

My concern is actually quite the opposite.  My bumper sticker would read, “God is not Government.” The real danger to freedom comes from the efforts of those Carroll County Commissioners, the Judge in Alabama who wanted the Ten Commandments placed in the local Court House, and a constant stream of religious zealots who want their own religious views to dictate what I do and what I believe.

As many times as this battle has been fought over the years, it is vital to understand that it will continue to have to be fought. The language of the Constitution, countless Supreme Court decisions, and appeals to tolerance aren’t enough. Each generation will have to win this fight anew.

That gets me to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a law that was affirmed by several Supreme Court decisions at the time.  You read about the practice of discrimination in what we call public accommodations—restaurants, hotels, buses and trains, and others—that predominated in the years before 1964 and you realize that great progress has indeed been made. Those practices made a mockery of any assertion that this country provided equal opportunity for all.

After watching the current Supreme Court decide that the 1965 Voting Rights Act is no longer needed and that decades of laws on campaign finance regulation are unconstitutional, it is hard to feel confident that the protections of the Civil Right Act of 1964 are secure.
Political victories are never final.  Even ones that seem to be grounded in the U.S. Constitution are subject to reinterpretation.

Freedom never came like a bird on the wing

Never came down like rain in spring

Freedom, freedom, what a hard won thing

You've got to work for it, fight for it

Day and night for it

And every generation has got to win it again