The First Amendment of the Constitution of The United States of America states; Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. This Amendment was ratified in 1791 and since the ratification of the First Amendment; there have been many debates over the right and wrong way to freely exercise religious beliefs. Many of these debates have reached the highest court in our nation, the Supreme Court, and these cases that have been deliberated upon have set in place a sort of standards that we follow with regard to the First Amendment.
In the building of this country and the government that would replace the monarchy that was common place and fought against, the Framers of the Constitution sought for a way to ensure that one religion could not dominate; leaving those who did not practice that doctrine to be looked down upon. Since the time of Henry VIII and the break from Rome, England had battled with itself over which religion was the right one. Many of the first colonists were those fleeing religious persecution, mostly in England; but also in France and Holland. The best course of action to the Founding Fathers was to issue a separation of church and state. Taking a cue from the Christian Bible, the Framers decided to “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21 English Standard Version) In layman’s terms, keep the church and state out of and away from each other’s affairs.
This concept may seem easy enough, yet if you look at various aspects of our government you can see a distinct favoritism towards Christianity. Granted, during the drawing up of the Constitution there were not as many well recognized religions in the world as there are today. Looking at the Establishment Clause; one needs to remember that alternative religions, those being non-Christian based, were not very well known in the newly founded United States. Though the Framers were enlightened in their libertarianism, it is doubtful they ever considered that citizens of this country would have a completely different dogma than the one they knew. The Establishment Clause can easily be translated into stating that there will be no fights between Catholic, Protestant, Puritan, Angelic, Huguenot, and Baptist; all of which are based in the Christian religion. All of which have no problem pledging themselves to God.
Though, what about the rest of the religions that is now commonplace in the United States. Are the people who follow the doctrine of Islam, Buddha, Wicca, Judea, and Atheisms to ignore the words “In God We Trust” on our currency, or do they fight to have every mention of a Christian God removed from our government. In France they practice the concept of laicite, the neutrality of the state towards religious beliefs, and the complete isolation of religious and public spheres.(Normandy Vision) Laicite is know in America as secularism, yet there are many differences between the French and American ideals of separation of church and state. In the United States we view separation of church and state as a wall between the two institutions, though there is intermingling of church in our government. In France, the practical consequence of the concept of laïcité is that there is no such thing as a state religion, and secondly, there is a complete separation of church and state. (Normandy Vision) Here in the United States we have freedom of expression where religion is concerned. From bumper stickers on our cars, to tee-shirts, to jewelry; we can express our religious views. In France at least, is that the public expression of religious belief is viewed with a certain amount of distaste or suspicion. Religion is something that you do behind closed doors, and do not talk about in public. Thus laicite means that you are not allowed to let your religious beliefs affect the whole of your everyday, normal life. You cannot show your faith or religious affiliation in public places. (Normandy Vision)
Looking at the secular differences between France and the United States it is easy to prefer the American standard of secularization. A law like the one adopted in France would almost certainly be unconstitutional in the United States. (Conkle, 2006) As an American it is hard to imagine keeping my religious beliefs hidden away as if I was doing something wrong. The French do have a wonderful concept in keeping religion wholly out of government, yet not at the price of religious expressionism. Though it causes conflicts amongst the citizens of the United States, religious expression is one of our rights. Many debates have taken place over these rights pitting neighbor against neighbor, parent against teacher, and church against school.
The largest arena that the debates take place in is the school systems of our country. Prayer in schools has been a very heated debate for parents who are both Christian and non-Christian. One of the issues that fuels the debate is the Pledge of Allegiance. Group recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance might be one of those instances where it makes sense to have discussions about what the Pledge means, why we say it, why we may not want to say it, and how we should treat one another’s choices regarding its recitation. (Davies, 2006)
In 2004 the Supreme Court ruled on Elk Grove Unified School District v Newdow, a case in where a father felt that his daughter saying the Pledge of Allegiance was a violation of her First Amendment rights. Newdow, an atheist, felt that his daughter having to pledge to a God that he did not believe in limited her freedom of religious expression. Elk Grove teachers began school days by leading students in a voluntary recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, including the words “under God” added by a 1954 Congressional act. Newdow sued in federal district court in California, arguing that making students listen – even if they choose not to participate – to the words “under God” violates the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. (Oyez) The Court found in favor of Elk Grove Unified School District under the grounds that Newdow did not have custody of his daughter and therefore did not have the standing to bring this issue to the attention of the court. This is not the only case that involved the flag in our schools. In 1940, when a Jehovah’s Witness family challenged the power of the state to compel students to salute the flag as an infringement of the right to free exercise, an 8-1 majority on the U.S. Supreme Court initially showed little sympathy for those who claimed exemption because their religious beliefs warned against the worship of graven images. (Davies, 2006)
It appears that in these two cases that the Supreme Court is refusing to take the violations of the First Amendment seriously. First the Supreme Court found against the Jehovah’s Witness family of Gobitis, because the flag was a symbol of national unity and secondly, Newdow, because he was not the custodial parent. Yet, in a long line of cases, the Supreme Court has invalidated school-sponsored prayer and religious instruction in public schools, even when student participation is designated as voluntary.(Conkle, 2006) It seems as if the Supreme Court is unable to handle the violations of the First Amendment in the manner that the Establishment Clause states. To ban voluntary prayer groups before school, but making the Pledge of Allegiance mandatory seems to be contradictory. People are not being harmed in prayer groups that occur before classes begin, but a child’s right to their religion is being taken away by pledging themselves to a God that they do not believe in.
In Santa Rosa they are taking the issue too far and reaching into the private lives of students and school district employees. The Santa Rosa restrictions prohibited religious expression such as voluntary, student-initiated prayer or off-the-clock religious discussion among adults. Under the school’s agreement, teachers were prevented from replying to e-mails sent by parents if words such as “God bless” were included, and district employees were not allowed to participate in privately sponsored off-campus religious events. (Unruh, 2010)
This is a clear violation of the First Amendment. For an employer to tell their employee that could not attend private religious events, during their time away from work, is unconstitutional. Normally the ACLU would become involved a petition the rights of the First Amendment and the wrongly accused. The only problem is that the ACLU did become involved and these are part of the ACLU negotiated-decree. A clerk in the school, Michelle Winkler, told of hiding inside a closet in the school when a co-worker sought comfort from her after the loss of the co-worker’s 2-year-old child. The two hid in the closet because they were worried about being seen and being held in contempt of court under the ACLU-negotiated decree. (Unruh, 2010) To be forced into a closet to hide your grief and have a friend comfort you in the way of your faith is not what this country was founded on. Our Founding Fathers would be disappointed in the actions that the Supreme Court and the ACLU have taken in the name of the First Amendment. Private religious expression is protected by the Free Speech Clause, even when it takes place on the premises of public schools or on other governmental property. (Conkle, 2006) Members of the 2009 graduating class at Pace High School expressed their objections to the ACLU restrictions on statements of religious faith at their school by rising up en masse at their ceremony and reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Nearly 400 graduating seniors at Pace stood up at their graduation. Parents, family and friends joined in the recitation and applauded the students when they were finished. (Unruh, 2010)
This is not the only instance in where the United States Government blatantly disregards the First Amendment. Though Congress is not to make a law establishing a religion, General references to God are commonplace in state constitutions and in other official pronouncements.(Conkle, 2006) From the State of the Union Address on January 27, 2010 to more historical speeches and government icons you can find the words “God” and “God bless”. As previously stated, it is easy to see that the United States is a largely Christian based country. This and additional supporting evidence show conclusively that the concern that motivated the framers to include the establishment clause in the constitution was definitely not fear of the doctrinal religion of Christian Theism. Some additional evidences that indicate Christian Theism was the national doctrinal religion are; emblazoned over the Speaker of the House in the US Capitol are the words “In God We Trust.”, God is mentioned in stone all over Washington D.C., on its monuments and buildings, every president that has given an inaugural address has mentioned God in that speech. Prayers and each president were sworn in on the Bible, saying the words, “So help me God.” (All About History, 2010)
With all these examples it is easy to see the preference of Christianity and the violations of the rights of those who do not practice the Christian dogma. Governmental expression that endorses or disapproves religion may not impair religious voluntarism, but it is likely to affront and alienate citizens who are excluded from the government’s symbolic favor. (Conkle, 2006) Many of these symbolic favors take place in government institutions and during government recognized holidays. Though these symbols of a Christian religion violate the Establishment Clause, the Supreme Court disagrees. The Court has suggested that the following practices do not violate the Establishment Clause: presidential Thanksgiving proclamations; the Supreme Court’s own opening cry, “God save the United States and this honorable Court,” our national motto, “In God We Trust,”; and the statutorily prescribed language, “one Nation under God,”.(Conkle, 2006) To someone who does not believe in Christianity this “suggestion” by the Supreme Court could be seen as a slap in the face with regard to their religious beliefs and expressions. It is hard to imagine that the Supreme Court is unconstitutionally going against the First Amendment because of tradition, yet that is what they are continuing to do.
In the system of checks and balances, at any time Congress could pass a law prohibiting the mention of a Christian God in any form in the United States government. Congress has yet to do so, though the First Amendment gives them the right to. One of the first things Congress was charged with was making sure that one religion did not dominate and become the national religion. Both the Supreme Court and Congress have failed the American people in upholding their First Amendment rights. How can the Supreme Court and Congress get away with this travesty of unconstitutional behavior? It appears that the exception is extremely narrow and that it requires that each of three conditions be satisfied: first, that the practice is a widely accepted and longstanding historical tradition; second, that it is primarily and essentially symbolic, not coercive; and third, that the government’s promotion and endorsement of religion is general and nonsectarian in nature. (Conkle, 2006) Yet, the mention of a Christian God in our government is anything but nonsectarian. Rather than make a mention of any God at all, Congress should stand by the Establishment Clause and make all government statements that involve the word “God” truly secular in nature by removing God all together. If we are to mention a Christian God in our government symbols, why not mention Allah, Yahweh, Buddha, Krishna, or Danu as well so that the whole nation is covered. This will never happen because, the Supreme Court has declared that the Establishment Clause requires government at all levels to be neutral toward religion. (Conkle, 2006)
This brings us back to the question that if government is required to be neutral toward religion, then why do we still have the words “In God We Trust” on our currency. This is a long standing tradition that needs to be changed. It is also a tradition that needs to be looked at very carefully due to all the contradictions that have been passed by the Supreme Court with regard to the Establishment Clause. Or is the Establishment Clause of today only in effect toward religions that are non-Christian. If this is true then our government needs to reassess the Constitution and the Establishment Clause. Christianity may be the historically recognized national religion of the United States, but religious beliefs and expressionism has vastly changes since the Framers sat down and drew up the First Amendment. I do not believe that the Founding Fathers ever intended for these many issues to come up against Congress and the Supreme Court when they first wrote the words “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” (The Constitution of the United States,” Amendment 1.)
To give them due credit, the government has been trying to change many of the Christian religious symbols in our government over the past few decades now that more and more religions are becoming recognized in the United States. Efforts to promote the religious content of the Ten Commandments by posting them in public schools and in other public buildings have been declared unconstitutional. (Conkle, 2006) It is a small start towards a nation that may not embrace the French Concept of laicite, but a nation that is truly secular and uphold the constitution rights of the First Amendment. Only when we as a nation are fully committed to the First Amendment will we find secular peace amongst ourselves and our government. Until then we will continue to fight against our government for our basic constitutional rights.
Normandy Vision. (2010). The Concept of Laicite in France. Retrieved June 23, 2010 from www.normandyvision.org/article12030701.asp
Conkle D. O. (2006) Religious Expression and Symbolism in the American Constitutional Tradition: Governmental Neutrality, But Not Indifference. Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies 13.2 (2006) 417-443 Retrieved June 10, 2010, from Project Muse Database.
Davies, A. (2006) In Law More Than in Life? Liberalism, Reason, and Religion in Public Schools. Rhetoric & Public Affairs 9.3 (2006) 436-458 Retrieved June 10, 2010, from Project Muse Database.
Oyez. (2010). Elk Grove Unified School District v Newdow. http://www.oyez.org/cases/2000-2009/2003/2003_02_1624
Unruh, B. (2010, June 7) God bless to be banned in schools? Statute to require getting permission before speech limits can be adopted. WorldNet Daily. Retrieved June 10, 2010 from http://www.wnd.com/?pageId=163873
All about History. (2010). Separation of Church and State. Retrieved June 23, 2010 from www.allabouthistory.org/separation-of-church-and-state.htm