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Diverse groups reach 'first-ever consensus' on religion & US law

When you hear about members of groups like the conservative American Center for Law and Justice or the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission meeting with the ACLU or the First Freedom Center, you're unlikely to think it's because they agree on anything... but that's what just happened. On January 12, representatives of these groups and others held a press conference at the Brookings Institute in Washington DC to announce the signing of a document entitled RELIGIOUS EXPRESSION IN AMERICAN PUBLIC LIFE: A Joint Statement of Current Law.

It's a consensus agreement on how the law affects individual, business and governmental expressions of religion. It's not a wish list, because many of the signers have very different ideas of what the law should be; it's merely a joint recognition of what the law currently is. The need for such a statement is important to the signers though, because there is so much confusion about the law in public discussions.
“There has been an incredibly brain-dead discussion about religious expression in American public life in so many contexts," said signer Melissa Rogers, director of the Wake Forest center and former general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, "and part of that brain-dead nature of the conversation is that there are so many false claims” about what the law actually says about the protections for, and limits upon, individual, group and governmental expressions of religious faith."

The signers hope the document will not only clear up some of the public confusion about current law, but aid in the debate over what the law should be in the future. Referring to earlier consensus statements on religious expression in schools, Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center in Washington, said, “Based on the track record of these past agreements, I am convinced that this new joint statement, covering a wide range of issues, can and will play a significant role in preventing litigation and promoting civil public discourse.”

In the works since 2005, the new document covers a lot more territory than earlier ones and there are numerous things in it for each group to love... or hate. Take consensus item #24, May legislative bodies hire chaplains and open legislative sessions with official prayers? The answer is "yes". The signers acknowledge that such practices have an "unambiguous and unbroken history" going back 200 years that the Supreme Court (March v. Chambers) concluded has become part of the fabric of our society and that the draftsmen of the Constitution did not see as a threat to the Establishment Clause.
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