“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
In simple language, the First Amendment says individual and group religious belief is good; government sponsored religious belief is bad. There are those who sorely disagree with this analysis.
Fayette, Mo., high school teacher Gwen Pope has been leading Christian prayers for students (and presumably faculty and staff) during school hours. This was done with the full knowledge of and possible encouragement by the school’s principle. The American Humanist Association wrote a four-page letter informing the school district that the practice was a violation of the Establishment Clause, and the school could be sued.
Since 1999, the Town of Greece, NY, has opened its council meetings with predominately Christian invocations, most invoking blessings in the name of Jesus, God or the Holy Spirit upon the city officials and proceedings. It was the perceived of some that the city was sponsoring Christian beliefs, and as of May 21, 2013, the city finds itself in line to stand in front of the Justices of the Supreme Court to argue it was not.
Barry Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the other party in the Town of Greece case, said to me, “We remain confident that [the]… overwhelmingly Christian prayers will ultimately be found a violation of the principle of separation of church and state.”
Of course, the school district and the city do not see a problem in the daily prayer or meeting invocations.
AU’s Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan said that “legislative bodies should focus on serving the community and stay out of the business of promoting religion.”
This appears to be the same position that Jesus of Nazareth takes in Luke 20:25, recognizing the establishment and validity of secular government and law without religious interference.
Research for my book ”A Christian Nation?” and essays on government and religion have revealed a pattern of selective First Amendment reading. The politically religious-right, in their advocacy of school and legislative sponsored prayer, appear to rely solely the Freedom of Religion Clause while fully neglecting the Establishment Clause. They are, in fact, asserting a constitutional right to government sponsorship of school and legislative prayer where there is none. This is Jefferson’s Wall, the separation of church and state.
The First Amendment fully acknowledges one’s right to personal belief or non-belief, and open association with others of the same ilk. Jefferson, Madison and Mason understood the importance of this individual freedom. Praying as an individual or as a group, whether or not in a school or public building, is not a problem.
They also knew too well the evils of theocratic government. Once any American governmental body is perceived to be sponsoring or supporting a religion, be it Christianity, Judaism, Islam or other faith, the Rubicon of the Establishment Clause has been crossed.
The keyword is “perceived.” The University of Missouri-Kansas City reminds us the United States Supreme Court has routinely “struck down any practices that might be likely to be perceived either as coercive or as a state endorsement of religion.” Perception, not intent, is seen as the injured party, with the validity and extent of that injury and the constitutionality of the intent predicated by the courts. Intent must justify its position.
That justification is called the “Lemon Test” (Lemon v Kurtzman 403 US 602), which maintains a three prong test to determine if Jefferson’s Wall has been breached.
- The statute must have a secular legislative purpose;
- its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion, and;
- the statute must not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion.
If the answer is “it does not” to any one provision, the governmental rule or action has most likely violated the embodiment of the First Amendment.
This is not an attack on religion or a specific attack on Christianity. The Establishment Clause is there to protect those within the entire religious spectrum, from ultra-pious to ultra-atheist, from the state saying “believe this way or else.” It is to protect us from the tyranny of the religious totalitarian regimes our Founders knew too well.
It is wholly unfortunate that other laws which clearly are religious based have not been challenged, which leads to a new question.
If the United States courts eventually permit a government sponsored religion, would that not lead us down that slippery slope towards a theocratic-democracy or a theocracy where religion is king? Just like Saudi Arabia or Iran.
And that, my friends, is another discussion.
David Rosman is an award winning editor, writer, professional speaker and college instructor in Communications, Ethics, Business and Politics. You can read more of David’s commentaries at ColumbiaMissourian.com, InkandVoice.com/Editorials and NYJournalofBooks.com.