Secular humanists embrace the principle of separation between state and church, as described in the establishment clause of the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Since this clause guarantees freedom of religion, it is a bit puzzling as to why it is often a point of contention between secular humanists and those with religious beliefs.
The constitutional principle of separation of government from religion is in the establishment clause of the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”. In simple terms, this statement means you are free to choose whatever religion you wish, including none. The government cannot establish an official religion and it cannot take any actions which favor one religion over others.
The founding of the United States occurred at a time when memories were relatively fresh regarding the battles and wars fought in Europe over conflicting religious beliefs. You may remember learning that the early colonists were often seeking to escape religious persecution and fighting in Europe. Part of my own wife’s family emigrated to this country as Quakers in the 1600s to avoid the ongoing conflicts with Lutherans in Germany. But the hostilities between religious groups tended to follow the immigrants and persisted among the colonies. Some of the founders’ families had been part of these conflicts, such as the fights between Puritans and Baptists. Founders like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison considered these conflicts to be hazardous to the stability and survival of the new country. Rather than establish an official state religion, they sought to make the government entirely neutral regarding religion and to prevent any religious conflicts from entering into national policies and actions. The prohibition covered all aspects of the government. It applied at the federal level and within the individual states down to the local level. The 1st Amendment in the Constitution did not end all religious conflict. Disputes continued to find their way to the courts for resolution.
To secular humanists, this continuing battle over the role of religion in the government seems perplexing. A standard meant to protect all faiths is continuously under challenge by one version or another of religion. The result is that organizations representing a position of no religious beliefs end up taking the job of protecting all faiths.
So what kind of challenges are made to the separation of state and church? The public schools have been a primary source of conflict. Some religious groups have advocated for having prayer at school events like graduations or for having prayers led by teachers and coaches in public schools. Whose prayer will this be? Given the religious diversity guaranteed by the 1st Amendment, which prayer are the schools asked to support? Should it be Christian or Muslim? If Christian, should it be Protestant or Catholic? If Protestant, which one of the many different ones found in every community? Whatever choice, someone will feel left out. What about those who have no religion at all? Should they be forced to pray? The courts have been relatively consistent and prohibited prayer as an official school activity at any level involving school staff. The public school and the teachers and staff are all part of the government. Children can pray while they are at school or school events. The 1st Amendment allows them to pray. But the 1st Amendment prohibits the school from directing and controlling the prayers.
Some efforts have been made by fundamentalist Christian sects to prohibit teaching the Theory of Evolution or to combine that with an unsupported alternative called “Intelligent Design” or “Creationism.” In this case, the opponents of maintaining the separation of state and church seek to have religious doctrine replace well-established biological knowledge. Inserting false ideas into the curriculum would undermine the quality of our educational system.
Other challenges come in the form of attempts to have religion inserted into the actual processes of government. The courts have been less consistent in upholding the separation of state and church in these cases. For example, you will find city council meetings opening with a prayer. As with the school example, we have to ask “whose prayer”? Is it a Hindu prayer, a Jewish prayer, a Bahai prayer? Or maybe it is a secular humanist invocation that isn’t a prayer at all. Some governments have tried to solve this dilemma by rotating through a long list of religious and non-religious groups. Often this becomes such a burden that they decide that they can conduct their business without a prayer.
The secular humanist Freedom From Religion Foundation is involved in hundreds of state/church cases each year. It has a record of either winning the case if it goes to the court or having the violation corrected after a letter of concern is sent. The reason they pursue so many cases is that any breach of the wall of separation between state and church that is allowed becomes a precedent that can make it difficult to win a later and more significant case. Chipping away at the wall can leave us with government thoroughly entangled in religion, and the battle to maintain religious freedom can be lost. Europe fought many wars over religion when it became entangled with the government. They often ended up with a single state church. But that church often had very few active members.
Grand Rapids Area Freethinkers