February 2, 2014

Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act to Add God Reference to State Seal

keep church and state separateDue to the importance of this issue to those of us residing in the state of Mississippi, as well as the broader interest to those everywhere who care about the separation of church and state, I am cross-posting this at Mississippi Atheists.

The state of Mississippi appears to be moving toward adding "In God We Trust" to the state seal. It was requested by our conservative Republican governor, Gov. Phil Bryant, and approved 48-0 by the Mississippi Senate (SB 2681). The bill, called the "Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act," now moves to the House. I would estimate the probability of it passing and becoming law as close to 100%.

What is particularly fascinating about this bill is the rationale that has been offered by its supporters for why we need it, given that the U.S. Constitution already guarantees religious freedom. According to Emily Wagster Pettus' article for the Associated Press, the bill's sponsor, Sen. Phillip Gandy (identified as minister of Liberty Baptist Church) explained:
Times are changing, and Christians are afraid of a lot of different things. And some of that is reality, possibly, and some is perception. But we want to do what we can.
Sen. Gandy indicated that some conservative Baptists and Pentecostals in Mississippi are concerned but did not specify what exactly they were concerned about. Perhaps the concerns stems from the rise of atheism. After all, the quote about times changing and Christians being fearful implies that they fear change and see this measure as a way to protect their privilege.

After the bill passed the Mississippi Senate, here is what Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves had to say about it:
The United States is a Christian nation, and nowhere is that reflected more than in Mississippi.
No, the United States not a Christian nation. It is a religiously diverse nation, and it includes millions of people who are not Christian and millions who do not believe in any sort of gods. To claim otherwise is to reveal one's ignorance of U.S. history and reality itself.

I realize it is tempting to conclude that the people of Mississippi get what they deserve for electing people like this to office. The problem with that sentiment is that it neglects to consider the fact that there are many atheists living in the state who deserve some protection from this sort of "tyranny of the majority." We do not trust in any sort of god, so why does our state insist on adopting a symbolic gesture that communicates that we are not wanted here? What happened to the separation of church and state?

Gov. Phil Bryant had this to say of the bill during his official State of the State address:
I continue to believe this is the right time to stand for our beliefs—our faith, our families, and our nation. To strengthen our resolve, I have asked that we take a bold step for God and country.
The "our" to which he refers appears to be limited to those who share his god-belief. I suspect it is limited to those who share his Christian beliefs as well. But again, there are many of us right here in Mississippi who do not share these beliefs. He is our governor too, and he is tasked with representing us. That he would use the power of his office to promote his Christian faith in this manner strikes me as an egregious dereliction of his duty to represent all Mississippians.

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