On the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, the official memorial service in New York was supposed to omit any mentions of religion. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg declared that the service could not include religious elements because that would be tantamount to the government forcing religion “down people’s throats.” He hoped that the lack of religion would ensure the focus of the events was on the victims and their families.
The ostensible reason for Bloomberg’s decision seems to have been the fear of excluding or including any specific religious group. Specifically, Bloomberg did not want to deal with the headache of either including or excluding Islam from the event. But despite any problems that might have arisen had Muslims – or any other religious group – been formally included in the ceremony, Bloomberg’s decision was erroneous.
Primarily, Bloomberg repeats a common misconception about religion and politics: If the government sponsors religion in any way, it is a violation of the separation of church and state. This notion, however, has little basis in our country’s history. Every president since Washington has sworn to uphold the Constitution, ending his oath with “so help me God.” Congress begins its sessions with prayers. The Supreme Court opens its sessions with the words “God save this court.” Every dollar printed bears the words “In God we trust.”
None of these religious expressions violates anyone’s right to the freedom of religion. In fact, freedom of religion means just that – each person in the United States is free to pursue his or her own religious beliefs, free from interference or harassment by the government. Neither the Constitution nor the Bill of Rights includes a right never to have to hear anyone talk about religion. The idea that a prayer spoken at the 9/11 memorial service would force religion down people’s throats shows a serious lack of basic knowledge about American civics. The first amendment guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.
Additionally, the issue of Islam should not really be an issue. Most Americans understand that the attacks of 9/11 were instigated by a sect of Islamic fundamentalists who chose to follow literally the Quran’s encouragement to attack non-Muslims (see Quran 9:29, 9:111, etc.). But Islam, like any other theological-political organization, has many strains of thought. Few would object to a Muslim imam being present at the service, so long as the imam was known to have clearly denounced Islam’s problematic and anti-American aspects.
The entire debate is silly and merely reflects the increasing popularity – and acceptance – of the secular and ill-informed idea that religion cannot have any place in public life. As it turned out, Bloomberg’s attempt failed. President Barack Obama, former President George W. Bush and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani all invoked religion in their speeches at the event. We’re happy to report that Bloomberg somehow survived this catastrophe and that the dome of Congress did not crack.