So where should the line be drawn between church and state? The French-style secularists want it drawn so that all expressions of religion are ruled out. Many Americans want religion - specifically their - codified into our government. Somewhere in between is where the line should be drawn.
First a quick look at history. Through the 15th century, Europe was officially Catholic. Jews and Moslems were tolerated, most of the time, but Christians were given a set doctrine. Disagreement got you in trouble with the law and punishments ranged from public recanting to gruesome death. At the same time, the church was increasingly corrupt.
The invention of the printing press allowed more people to own bibles. This in turn allowed translation into local dialects. During the 16th century people started reading the bible for themselves and arguing with the Catholic Church's interpretation. This led to religious wars through the end of the 17th century.
America's northern states were colonized by Protestants. Each colony used its own doctrine as the state religion. The reason there are so many small New England states is because of disputes over minor points of doctrine.
Nearly a century later the Bill of Rights was written. The authors wanted to protect their new nation against this.
At its core, freedom of religion means that you can believe what you want and cannot be penalized or marginalized for it by the government. This is at odds with both extreme. Just look at the secularists who think that Bush is unqualified to be president because he had religious convictions. Those at the other end would keep atheists and agnostics out of government.
Things get slippery. Just as someone's freedom of speech is protected, even when he calls for an end to free speech, everyone is entitled to their own beliefs, even when they are intolerant.
For example, some religious groups are planning a Day of Truth to counter the "gay agenda". I do not agree with this but I would be suppressing their freedom of speech and religion to suppress it. (Assuming that they are peaceful. If they call for anti-gay violence then they can be suppressed.)
A good rule to remember is that your side may not always be the one in control. Make sure that you give minorities the same rights that you would expect in their place. If you refuse to let someone engage in a peaceful activity then you will find your own activities curtailed when the roles are reversed (I hope that the Senate Republicans keep this in mind over the next couple of years).
If you start suppressing people because of their religion then eventually they will be in a position to suppress you because of your secularism. Democrats are trying to use the Schiavo case to argue that the Religious Right needs to be stopped. This will inevitably be met with a counter-attack against the secular.
Another hot spot in religion is in schools. For some conservatives hoped for a constitutional change to allow prayer in school (led prayer, silent prayer is a protected right). Proponents of this hope that 1) God will be so impressed by short, insincere, generic prayers that he will shower America with his blessings. 2) Non-believers will hear the watered-down word of God and be so impressed that they will convert. Can you guess my feelings on this?
Prayer in school is a blatant attempt at establishing protestant Christianity as the official religion of America. The courts have held that giving a pastor or other religious leader a generic prayer to say is also an unacceptable violation of free speech.
So, should all prayers in school be banned? No. I already mentioned silent prayer. A gray area is bible study groups. Many schools refuse to give them meeting space. This is also wrong as long as all religions are allowed to form study groups. I will not object to your Baptist group if you don't object to my wiccan circle (when I say all religions I mean it).
This leads into a different area - funding for religious groups. As long as the funding is available for others it should not be withheld on t he basis of religion. Look at my example of Old North Church. If the church was in private hands there would be no issue with the government issuing a grant to restore it. Since it is a functioning church, some people do object. The reasoning is that the money that they don't have to spend on restoration will be used for regular church functions, thus advancing religion. Never mind that the congregation cannot afford the work. By placing this restriction on the church, the government is discriminating against the owners of the church because of their religion.
The same line of reasoning is used against school vouchers. Liberals insist that this is nothing but an attempt by the Religious Right to fund churches. Again, as long as the money is available to any school. both religious and secular.
Should the government acknowledge religious holidays? This is a trick question. Christmas, Easter, Valentines Day and Halloween all have strong pagan roots with secular traditions added on top. Recongizing Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny does not advance Christianity in the slightest.
Thanksgiving is a religious holiday although it is a non-denominational one. There is no mandate who you should thank. I suspect that the French would have problems with it anyway.
The Pope was a world leader. In many ways he counts as a head of state including exchanging ambassadors with other countries. In addition, John Paul II was considered to have been a major force in the decline of Communism. I would expect any world leader in this position to be honored by putting flags at half mast. Does this advance Catholicism? Maybe a little - fifty years ago the US was hostile enough to Catholics that this would never have been considered so it also shows that the government is less anti-Catholic than previously. That's not going to win any converts. Go ahead and lower the flags.
I'll save the really hot issues - abortion and evolution - for my next post.