by Dr. Alfred Bloom, Professor Emeritus, University of Hawaii

Once again the issue of separation of church and state and the meaning of the United States as a secular nation has come to the fore in our courts. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the decision made by an earlier three-judge panel last summer declaring that the phrase “Under God” which was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 is unconstitutional. At that time in the struggle against Communism, President Eisenhower supported its’ addition. Previous generations of soldiers and citizens had expressed their devotion to country without it. However, the present ban on the recitation of the pledge in public schools has been put on hold until the Supreme Court decides the issue.

In response to the court’s decision and the outcry of opposition to it, primarily from the dominant Christian community, the Shin Buddhist Honpa Hongwanji Lay Association at its 41st Annual Convention in September 2002 passed a resolution supporting the court’s decision. The resolution was reported and affirmed at the Legislative Assembly in February 2003. The members expressed their belief that the American democratic ideal has permitted over 2000 different religious faiths and denominations to flourish in our highly diverse religious society, as well as it has enabled people of no religious commitment to pursue their lives freely.

In fact, despite the centrality of religious faith in every area of American life, it is the principle of separation of church and state and its’ fundamental secular character that ensures the freedom of each person to follow the faith of their choice without intimidation or oppression. While our society is secular in the manner taught by Jesus of rendering unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and unto God what belongs to God, it is not godless. American secularism is based on diversity is not militant or anti-religious such as has characterized the Soviet Union and China . Our secularism is a considered principle to keep government neutral in matters of faith, while permitting faiths to flourish and propagate as they will. The state does not favor a particular faith in practice or by implication.

The disagreements concerning this principle come from clarifying the implications and applications of the principle. Fortunately we are dealing with the fine points. We all rely on our courts to make fair judgments. Buddhists, therefore, affirm and strongly support the Constitution and the Bill of Rights which were wisely created by our Founding Fathers to secure the rights of all peoples and not merely those of the privileged few. Freedom of religion and freedom from religion are important principles for all people in our complex society.

Buddhism itself is not a religion of compulsion. The Buddha shared his teaching with all seekers and never imposed it on anyone. Buddhism teaches that all beings have Buddha-nature, the potentiality to become Buddhas, embodying compassion and wisdom. All are equal spiritually and in principle, if not always socially or in individual abilities. Shinran, the founder of the Shin Buddhist denomination, also believed in the complete equality of all people based on Amida Buddha’s unconditional Compassion. He never condemned those who disagreed with his view of faith, and he opposed dependence on political power to promote his teaching. He experienced persecution from the prevailing religious establishment of his time, and like Jesus and Buddha, taught that we should love our enemies, while seeking justice for himself and others. It is, therefore, a matter of principle for Shin Buddhists to oppose any weakening of the wall separating church and state.