Some parts of the country are hotbeds for proselytizing - trying to induce someone to convert to a particular religion. Examples are the Bible Belt to fundamental Christianity and Utah to Mormonism.
So when seven billboards popped up in our region this week promoting freedom from religion, the Inland Northwest's first known anti-proselytizing campaign was launched. More accurately, perhaps, the campaign is an attempt to convert citizens to a political philosophy: Firmly separating church from state.
The billboard campaign is sponsored by the local affiliate of a national organization, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (ffrf.org). According to a press release, the campaign is introducing "friendly neighborhood atheists" to their neighbors, but it's also doing more than that.
The group of atheistic and agnostic "freethinkers," as they call themselves, has been "working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate." FFRF aligns itself with the First Amendment and has been involved in lawsuits over issues like school prayer and religious symbols on public property.
While the U.S. Constitution does not contain the specific words "separation of church and state," constitutional scholars agree that such separation was deemed essential by the Founding Fathers and is integral to the enduring power of the document. Through ignorance and unabashed religious activism, the walls separating church and state face daily erosion. This becomes alarming to some citizens only when members of a religion they object to are the ones doing the eroding.
Jefferson, Adams and the rest were students of history whose political perspectives were honed to a fine point by the pain of personal experience. They clearly understood that for freedom to flourish, faith must never be legislated. They knew that the ideal role of government is to protect citizens' rights to think independently and to believe whatever they want to believe; to actively exercise that belief system so long as it doesn't impinge upon the rights of others.
If the Freedom From Religion Foundation's billboard campaign is helpful in reminding us that places of worship and of government must never occupy the same space, then we're grateful to our atheist neighbors for providing a valuable public service.