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Separation of religion and state, misunderstood?

Separation of church (religion) and state is a very common phrase that is never far from political discourse.  Despite its ubiquitous use, it is a very highly misunderstood phrase, if not the most misunderstood phrase. Like everything else around us, the phrase has an origin.

As far as modern political discourse goes, its origin is traced back to Thomas Jefferson, the 3rd President of the United States. In a letter to the Danbury Baptists in 1802, he wrote;

“…Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties….”

He wrote this letter in response to a letter sent to him by the Danbury Baptists who were basically concerned that the persecutions and past injustices they faced would not continue in the new state. In their letter of concern, they wrote, amongst other things;

“Our Sentiments are uniformly on the side of Religious Liberty—That Religion is at all times and places a Matter between God and Individuals—That no man aught [sic] to suffer in Name, person or effects on account of his religious Opinions—That the legitimate [sic] Power of civil Goverment [sic] extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbour:…”

The background to that concern also lies in the old tradition of the settlers, of requiring citizens to pay taxes that would be used to support clergy. Basically, local authorities had a recognized religion and the institution of that religion is maintained by the state through taxes. If you live in that state and were of a different conviction, tough luck, you still owe taxes to maintain the clergy because they deemed it as an essential part of the state. For example if you were Protestant and the only clergy recognized in that state is Catholic, you will pay taxes to maintain the Catholic clergy despite disagreeing with that denomination, punishment was carried out on those who refused to pay such taxes including confiscating their properties.

In England, where most of the settlers came from, people who disagreed with the religion of state were deemed heretics and underwent various forms of punishment including killing them for the crime of heresy. So in essence, the state passed a law that all who live in that particular state MUST believe a certain way. Considering the whole idea of America was, in theory, built on freedom, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, these remnants of the monarchical order that they fought against to declare independence had to go as well. Hence the First Amendment which states in that regard that;

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

What this means therefore, is that the state has a mandate to govern equitably regardless of what our individual inclinations are. That mandate should be carried out fairly without favor or ill-will. Which means that in the administration of state, right and wrong should not be determined based on one set of values but on our collective sets of values. For example, the state cannot criminalize alcohol consumption because it is prohibited by Islam and we have a majority Muslim population. In the same way, the state cannot say polygamy is outlawed because only monogamy conforms to the dictates of the Bible.

In essence, the state cannot prosecute or punish people because their actions violate a certain religious creed or reward them because they uphold certain religious views. In very lay terms, separation of religion and state simply means that the state cannot impose values and beliefs on people that they do not agree to. China is doing that now.

The U.S First Amendment provision is mirrored in The Gambia’s new draft constitution where the law making arm of government is explicitly banned from declaring a religion of state, but it goes further to state in Section 47 that;

  1. Every person has the right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion.
  2. Every person has the right, either individually or in community with others, in public or in private, to manifest and practice any religion or belief.
  3. A person may not be denied access to any institution, employment or facility, or the enjoyment of any right, because of the person’s belief or religion.
  4. A person shall not be compelled to act, or engage in any act, that is contrary to the person’s belief or religion.

So the question arises, why are those advocating for a secular designation basing their arguments on the claims that the separation of religion and state and the assurance of minority religious rights can only be guaranteed if The Gambia is designated a “sovereign secular republic” as opposed to the current designation of a “sovereign republic” with guaranteed religious rights as freedoms as stated above?

What they deem as state sponsored religion is in fact the state catering to the religious needs of her citizens. Because “a person shall not be compelled to act, or engage in any act, that is contrary to the person’s belief or religion” as stated above, would the advocacy that prayer be confined to personal time and space not in fact be in violation of that provision if Muslims cannot pray while at work but are required by their religion to pray when the time for prayer comes?

If we say that yes they can pray while at work (which they should be able to); in exercise of that right they decide to come together and pray, well subsection 2 above states; “every person has the right, either individually or in community with others, in public or in private, to manifest and practice any religion or belief.” This is where the “mosques at work places” come in.

Having over 95% Muslim population, every work place will reflect that number regardless of how large or small the employee pools is. This means when those individual persons (citizens) decide to come in community with others of the same faith to practice (manifest) their religion, you will have a congregation. How does the employer (state) cater to their needs without disrupting the work space? That is the question that needs answering. Designating a portion of the work space to cater to that community (having a mosque at the work place) is one solution, and it is the most used solution in our case. That is not necessarily a case of state sponsored religion. Asking that prayer at work places be banned is a rights violation and that is what the pushback is.

There is some truth to the fact that state entities have been found wanting in certain aspects, but in a country where there is no distinction between the president and the state, it becomes challenging to say that a president’s act is in fact an act of the state especially when such a president is a tyrant of the highest order. Yahya Jammeh declared on national TV that he owned the country, and no one is in doubt he acted as he pleased with no consequence.

He personally donated vehicles and equipment to the national broadcaster on a regular basis; he donated vehicles on his personal account to the armed forces, the various security apparatuses, government departments, schools, the university, organizations and charities. Never once did he give credit to the state or claimed it was from a state allocated fund. If that same man turns around and sponsors people to go on the Muslim pilgrimage, doled out monies to the Islamic council, or built a mosque or several mosques, that doesn’t necessarily mean the state empowered him to do so. He flaunted the laws and our rights and we allowed him to. It’s that simple; he held the courts and the law in contempt and we celebrated him as a philanthropist.

It is not rocket science therefore to conclude that regardless of what laws we promulgate, unless we the sovereigns are determined to defend them, anyone with executive powers will abuse the laws and in the process abuse our rights and nothing will come of it just as Jammeh did.

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