“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The First Amendment is often thrown around when the issue of Church and State are brought to the center of discussion. The highlighted passage above is perhaps the most controversial in the modern debate concerning the separation of Church and State, and is what the focus of this post will be on. This is called the Establishment Clause (EC).
On one side of the debate there are those that decry the use of the First Amendment barring the presence of religious symbols and buildings on publicly held land. Good examples are those that wish for the ten commandments to be present in judiciary buildings or those that advocate a religious building on federal colleges and parks. Proponents here claim that the EC is not designed to deter the use of religious ideals on government, but to deter government from private practice of religion and that protection only. A good example is someone wishes to practice Christianity in their home. Government has no right to interfere! It’s right there in the amendment! However, if the ten commandments were engraved in stone at his local city hall he would not and could not object, he feels his practice of religion is not being infringed.
But, what if he was not Christian? What if he felt that he was being judged not based on the law of the land, but by the laws engraved on that stone in the city hall? Furthermore, what if he held the view that by enforcing the ten commandments in a public area, the non-Christian felt that this prohibited the free exercise of his non-religion? After all, Justice David Souter, writing for the majority, concluded that “government should not prefer one religion to another, or religion to irreligion.” (Wikipedia). So how can we argue for the inclusion of one religious ideology and not another? Or any at all?
The other side of this issue holds that the EC stands for the complete separation of Church and State and neither side has any business dabbling in the other. Things like stone engravings in public buildings down to “In God We Trust” on our coins are an affront to the very nature of the First Amendment. What does it matter, you may ask? Well I happen to agree with the latter group on this issue and I will tell you why it matters.
It matters because our country is founded on the ideas of Freedom and Representative Government. If my government is to ensure freedom for all of the citizens in my country then it has a duty to ensure that no one religion is preferred over another. To those of us that do not believe in a theist god, this idea of “trusting in him” whenever we use currency is a part of state sanctioned religiosity that is completely incompatible not only with the First Amendment, but the Constitution itself. Regardless of religiosity or lack thereof, by supporting theism in a government capacity is the antithesis of what a free republic is founded on because it raises up one group of Americans over another by legitimizing their claims on morality and way of life. Basically, if one were to make a Constitution drafted in such a way to protect all citizens, the First Amendment shouldn’t even be necessary-it is a GIVEN that you cannot raise on group above another simply because they happen to be a part of a specific club.
If we are to live in a truly free and just republic we must remove the sanctity of religion as being outside the realm of the First Amendment and the Establishment Clause. The separation of Church and State are inherently necessary in order to best represent peoples of all different creeds, races, and ethnicities. Anything less is disingenuous to the tenants this country was founded on and is harmful to the progression of our country as a Great Nation. So please, the next time someone advocates against removing religious symbols on public lands, remind them that in order to represent everyone to the best of the Constitution, we must have a neutral government in the matters of religiosity. We cannot hold up one group over another whether it be Christians and Muslims, theists and non theists, or scientologists and pastafarians if we are to live in a free society.