The U. S. Constitution was written in such a way that it left a great deal open to interpretation. Had that not been the case, we would have little need for courts and judges. Scholars often ponder the true intentions of the founding fathers on issues such as gun control, freedom of speech and the mythical right to privacy. However, there is plenty of evidence available that pertains to the Establishment clause, or its more popular shorthand, the separation of church and state.
During the push to write and ratify a bill of rights, it was agreed upon that the government should stay out of religious matters and be barred from showing favoritism by means of financial assistance or other privileges. For two centuries, the meaning of “freedom of religion” has been clearly defined through court cases. The same is not true today. A religious, conservative resurgence has threatened the future of the Establishment clause. The federal bar against mixing government with religion should also apply to the states; the states must be prevented from launching religiously motivated legislation.
Politically, the United States has become overrun with conservative thinking and values. A Gallup Poll dated July 15, 2009 showed that forty percent of Americans consider themselves to be conservative while only twenty-one percent define themselves as liberal. The traditional definition of a Conservative is one who wants limited government interference in the lives of its citizens. However, today’s conservative ideologies contrast completely with this antiquated definition. Conservative groups have been working overtime to quash the civil liberties and civil rights of U. S. citizens.
In the past few years, they have prevented gays and lesbians from marrying in California for no other reason than it violates their religious beliefs. These groups have also passed a law in Oklahoma that protects doctors who refuse to give pregnant patients accurate information about their unborn fetuses for fear the fetus will be aborted. Actions that threaten the separation of church and state also threaten our civil liberties and civil rights. According to the textbook, civil liberties are, “individuals’ freedoms and legal protections that cannot be denied by the actions of the government.
” A civil right is a legal protection that deals with equality. The Establishment Clause of the first amendment provides that our government will not establish a national religion. It does so in order to uphold our civil liberties and civil rights. In addition, it will not promote one religion over another, nor will it define a preference for religion over non-religion, or vice versa. Because the separation of church and state is offered in the Constitution, it is a civil liberty; we have the right to practice any religion of our choosing or none at all. This information is stated in the first amendment.
This is also a civil right, as we cannot be discriminated against in the workplace or by our own government for not practicing a religion. Freedom of religion has two meanings. The first is that we are free to practice any religion of our choosing, so long as that religion’s practice does not violate any laws (such as polygymy or human sacrifice). The Establishment clause also implies a freedom from religion. One cannot be persecuted for not practicing a religion. The Establishment Clause has been challenged and used as a mean to challenge from its very inception.
One of its guarantees is Article VI, which protects citizens from being required to take a religious oath in order to hold a public office or to hold any position in the government. In Torasco v Watkins (1961), Torasco was denied a job as a notary public because he refused to declare a belief in a god. The Supreme Court overturned this decision unanimously. This doesn’t mean that the practice has been eradicated, however. Article VI does not apply to the states, and there are still nine states whose laws allow discrimination against anyone who refuses to declare a belief in a god.
The Arkansas State Constitution is very specific, “No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any court. ” According to Arkansas, a person who does not practice religion is incompetent. Maryland offers this conundrum: “That no religious test ought ever to be required as a qualification for any office of profit or trust in this State, other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God;” This Article contradicts itself; yet it remains in the Maryland constitution today.
The practice of religion has had a tremendous impact on education, both public and private. In McCollum v Board of Education (1948), many different religious groups offered voluntary religious education in public schools to children whose parents signed a permission slip. The Supreme Court denied religious groups the right to use public school time, facilities and funds to teach religion. It has also denied schools the right to promote prayer, as in Engel v Vitale (1962), and to require the reading of the Bible, as in Murray v Curlett (1963). Also of great concern has been the issue of what to teach, especially in regard to evolution.
Many religious groups prefer to trade evolution for creationism, the idea that a higher power must have been responsible for everything, even though there is no evidence. In Edwards v Aguillard (1987), the teaching of creationism, even in conjunction with the teaching of evolution, was found unconstitutional. Keeping religion out of the government is a full-time job, and an unsuccessful one at that. The state board of education in Texas approved a change in the social studies curriculum that reflects both conservative and Christian fundamentalist values.
The board agreed to remove references to Thomas Jefferson’s contributions to the Enlightenment, replacing him with religious leaders Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin. The curriculum will not give an explanation of why the founding fathers demanded separation of church and state. Most significantly, the textbooks will no longer reflect the accepted term B. C. E (Before Common Area), once again returning to B. C. (Before Christ). Last week, a rally was held in Austin on the steps of the Texas state capital to protest the distribution of textbooks promoting the current religious-based ideas.
On April 27, 2010, a law was passed in Oklahoma that protects doctors who choose to lie to pregnant patients. Doctors can tell a woman she’s carrying a healthy fetus, even if that fetus has significant problems. The stated intention is to keep women from aborting based on this information. Not only does this leave a mother-to-be completely unprepared to care for a potentially ill or disabled child, but it eliminates the relationship of trust that any patient should have with a doctor. The last but most significant current event is that of Proposition 8 in California.
In 2008, residents voted to bar gays and lesbians from marrying. The most vocal opponent of gay marriage was, not surprisingly, a religious group – the Church of Latter-Day Saints, also known as the Mormons. It has been estimated that this group spent nearly $20 million dollars on the “Yes on 8” campaign. Should a religious group be allowed to put itself in the middle of a political issue? This question has not yet been explored, nor has there been a constitutional challenge to the passing of Prop 8 based on the overwhelming influence and financial backing of the Mormons.
There are still groups who believe in the separation of church and state on every level. One such group is the Freedom From Religion Foundation, whose mission is to “promote the separation of church and Government, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism. ” the FFRF had a victory earlier this month when its 2008 lawsuit protesting the National Day of Prayer was decided in its favor – and against President Obama. Another such group is the AU – Americans United for Separation of Church and State, whose mission is to “defend religious liberty in Congress and state legislatures”.
Their current project is to keep religious organizations from getting involved in the political process through significant donations. Ron Paul is a doctor and Republican congressman in Texas who opposes groups like FFRF and AU. He believes that the government has no right to interfere with religious matters, even if they impinge on the rights of citizens. Another opponent is the former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. She believes, against all evidence, that the founding fathers would not support the separation of church and state.
She was quoted at an evangelical women’s conference asserting, “God shouldn’t be separated from the state”. The arguments to uphold the Establishment clause are clear and concise: groups like AU rely on Thomas Jefferson’s statement that the government cannot have jursdiction over the mind and cannot dictate beliefs. Opponents believe that the United States is a “Christian nation” and must be treated as such. Unfortunately, it isn’t a fair fight. FFRF and AU use specific references from the Constitution as well as Thomas Jefferson’s written opinions on the matter to support their views.
The opponents tend to quote the Bible and insist that the founding fathers wanted our nation to be united in Christianity, even though there is no concrete proof. This is typical of religious groups, who use circular logic to make their points. After all, it isn’t as though we can contact their deity for an opinion. They would like us to take it on faith that they’re doing the right thing. In conclusion, the freedom of religion is one of the most important freedoms we have.
Clearly, it affects all aspect of our lives from education to the workplace to our own health and the health of our future children. If we don’t fight to protect this right, our children may be forced to learn Christian revisionist history and pseudo-science. Regardless of our personal religious beliefs, we simply cannot leave it up to our government to decide which of our religious freedoms will be protected and which we’ll be force to surrender to a belief system with which we may not agree.
My personal beliefs are in the minority, which makes it all the more important to uphold Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a life free of the burden of forced religion. Works Cited: Shorto, Russell. “How Christian Were the Founding Fathers?. ” New York Times Magazine. New York Times, 02 Feb 2010. Web. 30 Apr 2010. <http://www. nytimes. com/2010/02/14/magazine/14texbooks-t. html>. Organizations: Freedom From Religion Foundation: http://www. ffrf. org/ Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU) www. au. org