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US celebrates its most misread freedom

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"There is tremendous importance to educating people more deeply," says W. Cole Durham, Jr., a religious liberty expert at Brigham Young University law school in Provo, Utah. "This is an issue people care deeply about and want to understand. They relate to these ideals in terms of their practical experiences, and they'll have emotional reactions."

Just last week, for instance, in a case with broad implications for religious schools and US universities, Calvary Chapel Christian School in Murrieta, Calif., sued the University of California for refusing to give applicants credit for courses taught from a religious perspective. The university says it has the right to set academic standards; the school says the university discriminates against conservative Christian viewpoints.

Issues of religious freedom have become more visible and contentious in recent decades as faith groups push back against what they see as an oversecularization of American life. But the debates have become so heated, some say, because groups at the extremes - secular and religious - are most vociferous.

"The [founders'] idea of a secular state with neutrality toward religion emerged out of the need to keep warring religious factions in check," says Professor Durham. "It envisions a place where everyone is free to bring their ideas and distinct identities to the table." But a secular fundamentalism has developed with its own dogma, saying everything has to be secular. That, in turn, spurred a religious response, which also has its fundamentalist strain.

The shouting matches have helped give separation of church and state a bad reputation, says Charles Haynes, of the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va. "There's been an effort over recent decades to persuade many conservative religious people that separation is not in the Constitution, and to undermine support for it."

In fact, some are vigorously promoting the idea among churches of a so-called "return to being a Christian nation."

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