The First Amendment to the US Constitution reads, in part: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” These two rules are the basis of secular government in the United States. Specifically they provide that no state church shall be established in the United States (the “establishment clause”) and that citizens shall not be hindered from the practice of their own religion according to their conscience (the “free-exercise clause”). More generally they establish a neutral position on the part of government with regard to religion. Government may neither forbid nor compel religion or religious observances among its citizens; it may not rule on theological doctrine or enforce religious laws, it may not pass laws that have no secular purpose or justification, and it may not endorse one religion over another, or belief over non-belief.
In addition, Article VI of the Constitution stipulates that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”
The framers knew what they were doing when they incorporated church-state separation into the government of the United States: they had hundreds of years of sectarian conflict in European history from which to learn, and as former British subjects, they were especially aware of the sectarian conflicts that had torn England apart for most of the previous three centuries.
It follows that atheists, while all over the spectrum in terms of political beliefs and convictions, do come together on issues of church and state. Based on the establishment and free exercise clauses, we support the right of the individual to believe and to practice as he or she sees fit, provided that such exercise does not infringe upon the rights of others, and to associate and to express publicly one’s personal views. However, we oppose the adoption by any level of government of policies which are based on religious thinking, superstition or cultural identity based on religious history. In determining the appropriateness of government policy with regard to the establishment clause, we can endorse the three-pronged test used in the 1971 Supreme Court case Lemon v. Kurtzman, wherein a government action violates the clause if:
- the action has no legitimate secular purpose,
- the primary effect of the action is to advance or to inhibit religion, or
- the action results in “excessive entanglement” of church and state.
The benefits of the American system of church-state separation should be obvious to everyone. Contrary to the claims of those who wish to dissolve such separation, the system has worked to the benefit of believers and non-believers alike. In 1835, in the midst of a mass religious revival, Alexis de Tocqueville observed the vibrancy and passion of religious activity in America, and attributed it, as did most of the members of the public and the clergy at the time, to government’s hands-off stance on religious matters. This was in contrast to religiosity in Europe, where state churches reigned supreme and interest in religion among common citizens was low. Even today, the US remains high in religiosity compared to most developed Western countries.
Objections to secular government and church-state separation
The United States is a Christian (or Judeo-Christian) nation. No. Christians of various denominations have been the dominant religious group among Americans since the settling of America by Europeans, but Americans include not only Christians and Jews but Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and practitioners of other religious traditions, as well as non-religious. All of us are equal under the law. And since religious diversity in American communities is growing rapidly, church-state separation provides an important neutral medium in which all these different groups can co-exist. The ideal of the United States is inclusivity, and to tie a particular religious tradition to the ideals on which the nation was founded undermines that inclusivity. One may as well assert that the United States is a Caucasian nation as to assert that it is a Christian one.
The Declaration of Independence says that all men “are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights”, proving that the United States was intended by its founders as a religious nation. No. We can debate over whether the mention of a “creator” in the Declaration was merely a rhetorical figure or whether it reflected an explicitly theistic world-view, but the inclusion of the word “creator” in the Declaration does not oblige us to consider religious issues to be an area of government.
The Declaration of Independence, first of all, was intended to be exactly what its name says, a declaration that the citizens of the American colonies no longer considered themselves subjects of the British crown. It did not provide for a form of government. The US Constitution, which was ratified eleven years after the signing of the Declaration, does provide for a form of government, and its only mentions of religion (apart from the phrase “in the year of our Lord”) are, as mentioned above, to explicitly forbid religious tests as a requirement for any office and to forbid the establishment of religion and to guarantee free religious exercise.
Secondly, many of the founding fathers were Deists, who were theists who believed in a First Cause—that is, a god who created the universe—but did not believe that that god necessarily intervened in human affairs and therefore looked to reason to form a secular system of morals and values. What is often overlooked by those who seek to find a religious mission in the Declaration is that the principle of universal human rights was a concept of the European Enlightenment, a movement made up of rationalists, skeptics, and critics of religion in government, and was, in terms of ideas of politics and governance, completely new.
The United States is “One Nation Under God.” The phrase quoted comes from the 1954 amended version of the “Pledge of Allegiance”, a text originally composed by Francis Bellamy in 1892, which was first promulgated through the children’s magazine The Youth’s Companion as part of a campaign to sell flags to schoolhouses, and then adopted as an official oath of loyalty to the flag and the country in 1942. Bellamy was a self-described “Christian socialist” who fervently believed in the mission of public education, favored the nationalization of important public services, and who believed in establishing a socialist, redistributive economy, based on certain teachings of Christ; in other words, his views would have been very unpopular in the religious right of today. The Pledge was amended to include the words “under God” (a phrase used by President Abraham Lincoln in the delivered version of the Gettysburg Address) by joint resolution of Congress in 1954, when the country was in the throes of cold war with the Soviet Union, in order to differentiate the United States from the “godless” Communist states. The motto “In God We Trust” was adopted around the same time for the same purpose.
The phrase “under God” has been repeatedly challenged on constitutional grounds, and while the courts have consistently held that the pledge is voluntary and persons, including school children, cannot be compelled to stand for or recite the pledge, the Supreme Court has refrained from ruling whether the phrase connotes an establishment of religion as defined in the First Amendment. Most atheists, including myself, believe that such wording does violate the Establishment Clause, especially given the historical context in which the wording was adopted. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who signed the amendments to the pledge into law, said “From this day forward, the millions of our school children will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural school house, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty.”
It is common practice to claim divine favor for one’s own country or to attribute the success of one’s country to the people’s religious faith. We know, however, that all authority in the United States is derived, not from a god, but from the consent of the governed. Since saying the pledge cannot be required or compelled of individuals, and since the pledge can in no way be construed as a founding document, there is no reason to infer a “party line” or ideological plank from it.
When atheists challenge religious endorsement by the government, they tend to select their battles carefully: the institution of school-led prayer or devotional readings in public schools, or the introduction of religious-based curricula such as creationism or abstinence-only sexuality education are more egregious violations of church-state separation than the wording of a ceremonial text, though most atheists do favor simply using the phrase as originally appearing in the pledge, “one nation indivisible”, and leaving religious persons to call for divine favor or protection on their own time and in their own places of worship.
The Supreme Court banned prayer from schools. No. In 1962, in the case Engel v. Vitale, the Court ruled that teachers or administrators leading public school classes in prayer constituted state endorsement of one religious belief over others, and was a violation of the establishment clause. The following year, the court ruled in Abington School District v. Schempp that schools may not lead classes in readings from the Bible, for the same reason. Neither of these decisions affected what students, or any individual, may do privately. A student may pray or read the Bible for devotional purposes, as a private activity, anywhere and at any time he or she wishes: such activities are guaranteed by the free-exercise clause. Also, while leading students in Bible readings for devotional purposes is forbidden by the establishment clause, using the Bible as a text for academic study (for its value as a literary, cultural, historical or philosophical document) in public school classrooms, in the same way as the Epic of Gilgamesh or the Bhagavad-Gita might, is protected by the Constitution.
Secularists are trying to exclude religion from public discourse. This argument is heard repeatedly from people who object to attempts to enforce the establishment clause and maintain a religion-neutral environment in government. Religious conservatives also frequently point to these attempts to enforce the establishment clause as evidence that Christianity and Christians are being “persecuted”. Considering Christianity’s five-hundred-year dominance in the Americas, the claim is absurd. Places of worship are not being closed, people are not being prevented from the free exercise of their religion, writers and media outlets such as publishers, periodicals, radio and television broadcasters and websites are not being harassed or silenced. Any fears that religion will disappear from American life at any time in the foreseeable future are quite unfounded. What is behind the constant claims that religious people are being persecuted is fear over the loss of religious privilege, which is defined as the assumption that society somehow “belongs” to those whose religion are in the statistical majority and that government and public life ought to validate, enshrine and enforce the tenets of that religion.
“Secular Humanism” has been defined by the Supreme Court as a religion, therefore secularists are trying to turn their beliefs into a state religion. No. The text in which the Supreme Court supposedly “defined” humanism as a religion is a footnote to the 1961 Torcaso v. Watkins decision in which Justice Hugo Black comments: “Among religions in this country which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God are Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism, and others.” Such footnotes are referred to as dicta, and simply contain factual background to legal principles in a decision. Dicta are simply comments, and do not have the force of law; additionally, Justice Black had his facts wrong: not only is humanism not a religion, but some, though not all, sects of Buddhism do worship the Buddha as a deity.
A Ninth Circuit Court ruling in 1994 finally settled this confusion in Peloza v. Capistrano School District: when a teacher claimed that being required to teach evolution by his school district amounted to his being forced to teach the “religion” of secular humanism. The court rejected this claim “because neither the Supreme Court, nor this circuit, has ever held that evolutionism or secular humanism are ‘religions’ for Establishment Clause purposes.” In refusing to review this case, the US Supreme Court let stand this ruling.
Throughout its history, American government has been by no means consistent in its adherence to the principles of the establishment clause, and there are many instances of assumed religious privilege, discrimination based on religion, and even sectarian violence, but where the principles of the Clause have been held to, the result has been a net benefit for society and freedom of conscience for people of faith and people of no faith alike, as well as a rich tradition of secular, pluralistic values on which all Americans have come to agree upon and defend. In short, church-state separation works.
Nevertheless, the principles of secular government have come under repeated attack from religious groups (generally, conservative Christians) who believe that public policy should be in line with their own sectarian beliefs. These groups oppose equal rights for homosexuals (including the right to civil marriage) and the right of choice over decisions regarding reproduction and sexuality, and support the introduction of religious teaching and advocacy in public education through curricula such as creationism or intelligent design and abstinence-only sexuality education. In doing so, such groups frequently misrepresent facts and appeal to the emotions and prejudices of the public. We will deal with these issues in more detail in other sections of this site.