Thinking About Separation of Church and State

I’m writing this in response to something posted in a Facebook group, which I started to write in Facebook, but it was turning into something major, so now it’s a blog post.

The original comment:

“I really just mean a state anti-religious or taking the separation between church and state to nitpicky extremes, obsessed with avoiding all prayers to God in general in the public square or the slightest mention of God in the public square. I have no problem with a President, for example, saying “God bless the United States of America”, or the pledge saying, “Under God”, or, “In God we trust” on our coins, or prayers at public meetings, as long as neutral and inclusive, and not mandatory for anyone.”

My response, addressed to the person who posted the comment:

Let’s take these apart. “The left” these days really is not concerning itself with “In God We Trust” on coins; possibly a few atheists are, but I haven’t heard anything about this lately.

When you are talking about the “public square” are you talking about official functions of some level of government — including public school functions — or activities initiated by private citizens and carried out on public property? This makes a huge difference.

Current U.S. statutory and case law protects the rights of individual citizens to do religious stuff on public property, such as hold prayer meetings in a public park. Local ordinances may require you to get a permit, but local officials cannot deny your group a permit just because it is religious, as long as it is allowing non-religious groups permits to use the park.

The same thing is true of public school property. Students may organize their own prayer groups and pray together on public school property before and after school and during recess. They may also organize Bible study clubs and use school facilities after school for their meetings, if the school is allowing other kinds of clubs, such as the Girl Scouts, to meet there. This is a matter of law, enacted by Congress in the Equal Access Law of 1984, which was upheld by the Supreme Court in Westside Community Schools v. Mergens (1990).

So it’s utter hyperbole to say that religion is being totally banned from the “public square.” What’s prohibited, mostly, is religious expression that is initiated or sponsored by government itself.

The reason parents — and they weren’t just atheist parents — challenged school prayers is that some schools were forcing children to say prayers that violated their religious beliefs. For example, one of the landmark SCOTUS cases that prohibited school prayer, Engel v. Vitale (1962), was brought by Jewish families whose children were being coerced into saying prayers to Jesus in public school. There were a number of other cases back then in which children were being punished in subtle ways — being forced to hide in the cloakroom or sit in the library doing long division — if they refused to take part in religious activities in school.

The more recent Texas football case, Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe (2000), was initiated by Catholic and Mormon families who not only objected to the content of the prayers being said over the loudspeakers before football games, they also testified that many teachers had treated their children with hostility because they hadn’t been “born again” and in some cases had ridiculed them in front of other students because of their religion. School officials seriously needed to be reminded they weren’t living in the United States of Fundamentalist Jesus.

However, by law, people who really want to pray to Fundamentalist Jesus before high school football games can still do so if they organize their own prayer circles before the game, and they can do this on school property. It just can’t be part of the official program that everyone has to sit through.

One of my favorite “enlightenment” examples on this issue was an article in World Net Daily by a guy who couldn’t understand the big deal about prayers at football games until his company temporarily transferred him to Hawaii. He was invited to a high school football game and asked to stand up for the pregame prayer, which he did. Then he realized to his horror that he was standing up for a Buddhist prayer.

We were frozen in shock and incredulity! What to do? To continue to stand and observe this prayer would represent a betrayal of our own faith and imply the honoring of a pagan deity that was anathema to our beliefs. To sit would be an act of extreme rudeness and disrespect in the eyes of our Japanese hosts and neighbors, who value above all other things deference and respect in their social interactions. I am sorry to say that in the confusion of the moment we chose the easier path and elected to continue to stand in silence so as not to create a scene or ill will among those who were seated nearby.

Wow, that was big of him.

Anyway, over the next few days the writer found out that, because this ethnic Japanese community was predominantly Buddhist and Shinto, the pre-game prayers were also either Buddhist or Shinto. He stayed away from Hawaiian high school football games because he couldn’t handle the prayers. He concluded,

The point is this. I am a professional, educated and responsible man who is strong in his faith and is quite comfortable debating the social and political issues of the day. Yet when placed in a setting where the majority culture proved hostile to my faith and beliefs, I became paralyzed with indecision and could not act decisively to defend and proclaim my own beliefs. I felt instantly ostracized and viewed myself as a foreigner in my own land.

Yes, and it’s apparently incomprehensible for a lot of people of the majority faith, Christianity, to imagine what it feels like to be in the minority until it happens to them. I wish I could send the whole Bible Belt to Buddhist/Shinto public observances so they can appreciate what it feels like.

The point here is that courts have interpreted the free exercise of religion to be a basic right of citizenship enshrined in the First Amendment but protected by the 14th Amendment, the first paragraph of which is —

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Prayers and other religious observances that are initiated and conducted by “officials” of government, whether school teachers or senators, and are part of the official program of some kind of government function, are an infringement of the free exercise of religion of any citizen who is not of the faith represented in the prayer. And there is no such thing as a “nonsectarian prayer,” especially if there are any atheists or nontheists (like me) in the audience.

Earlier this year in Town of Greece v. Galloway (2014) SCOTUS ruled to allow sectarian prayer before government meetings. Such prayers had never been prohibited as long as they didn’t amount of obvious proselytization, although there was some grumbling Justice Scalia’s written opinion opened that door. Conservative Christian groups celebrated their “freedom to pray,” as if they’d actually been prohibited from praying before. Now some groups are fighting back by insisting that the prayers include pagan or other minority prayers, and I don’t see how even Justice Scalia — famous for his creative interpretations of the Constitution — could come up with an argument that such prayers must only be Christian. Although I wouldn’t put it past him to try.

I haven’t personally said the Pledge of Allegiance for decades. I originally stopped saying it because I was angry about the War in Vietnam, but then I realized the “under God” part was wrong, and citizens should be required to say that. It’s an infringement on freedom of religion. I’m not on any big crusade to outlaw the thing, but I do encourage people who are uncomfortable with it to just not say it. Maybe someday if enough people are just not saying it, the thing will be re-thought.

The point is that something that may not seem like a big deal to you might be a big deal to the guy standing next to you, and he has rights, too. Your “nitpicky extreme” might feel like a serious infringement to somebody else.

10 thoughts on “Thinking About Separation of Church and State

  1. Jesus, please save us from your “Christians!!!”

    For they know not the harm that they do.

    Pray to whoever or whatever you want, whenever you want- just leave the rest of us the hell alone, please!

  2. “To sit would be an act of extreme rudeness…”

    At least this nutcase had the intelligence to understand this point. Many/most of them would not even consider this social behavior.

    Most righties are stuck somewhere in Stages 1 to 4 of Kohlberg’s Moral Hierarchy (flawed as it may be, it is descriptive). This guy at least knows Stage 5 exists, even if he does not fully operate at this level.

  3. In our school district, teachers may not make any requirements of students during the Pledge of Allegiance except that they not be disruptive. I myself just exclude the phrase “under god.” I think the whole thing is a silly mantra that accomplishes nothing.

  4. As a nontheist I remember being for ed to stand for all manner of prayers and resenting it. It only rei forced my dislike of all things religious . I relate more to Budhism than anything so far. And, I’m sick of christians claiming they are persecuted here in the US!

  5. I was in elementary school when “under God” was added. I’ve never agreed with the inclusion from the beginning and I’ve never used those words – even during my 21 years in the U. S. Navy.

  6. Even without the ‘under God’ bit, the Pledge is plain bizarre. It’s a loyalty oath said repeatedly–why? Does a married couple repeat their wedding vows to one another every day? It seems to me to be a great tool to keep everyone in line– lest anyone get any ‘unamerican’ ideas (whatever that word might mean– another bizarre Americanism). Are there any other countries that do this sort of thing? Isn’t singing some national anthem enough?

  7. One of the things that annoys me is the usurping of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” for “God Bless America” during the seventh inning stretch. It’s been 13 years since 9/11/2001. Give us back our baseball traditions. However, I only watch games on TV now (the playoffs) and I opt out by changing the station. Sometimes, I forget to go back to the game and continue to watch what I found by turning the station off because I don’t want to hear “God Bless America.”

  8. Like some of your other commentors,I too was in grade school when “in under G-d” was stuck in the pledge by President Ike. Like the others, I never liked it. I think I was only 7 or 8 and as a Jewish kid, it didn’t sit well with me: as you can see we do not write out the whole name of G-d. But the point is, I just didn’t say it. I still don’t say it. I repeat the rest of the pledge and look around and see many people don’t say it too.

    It’s no big deal – we don’t make a fuss. The last time I attended a meeting of our local Democratic Committee, we had 3 prayers given before the start of the meeting. One each by a Rabbi, a Christian Minister and a Muslim Imam. I thought is was refreshing that someone thought this up.

    It took forever because the Imam was also a fierce Democrat and he made sure to implure us to go out and vote. He truly was preaching to the choir.

  9. Swami, it’s funny you mention that. My significant other (we live in Florida, so still aren’t married) immigrated here with his family when he was like 2 years old. But, he screwed around and had never done his Citizenship. He finally did it a couple of years ago, and I went with him to the naturalization ceremony, and lo and behold, they played that song. I was beside myself. With all of the beautiful truly patriotic songs we have, and that is drivel they picked to play.

Comments are closed.