October 13, 2009 by D Stack
As a card carrying member of the ACLU I have to confess I’m totally in on the secret plan to remove all references from the US Constitution. And I shall reveal it here.
Yes, a quick perusal of the Constitution will reveal zero references to God.
I mention this because if you keep an eye on an online debate about an issue regarding the separation of church and state sooner or later you will find a reference to the ACLU’s desire to remove God from the Constitution.
The latest flashpoint involves a cross put up in federal land in the 1920s in honor of American World War I veterans. The root of this debate is the First Amendment to the Constitution:
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.
How best to interpret the intent of the authors? I think James Madison, the man who introduced the text of the Bill of Rights to the Congress would be a good authority. First a quote prior to the adoption of the Constitution to give an idea as to his views in general:
Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity in exclusion of all other religions may establish, with the same ease, any particular sect of Christians in exclusion of all other sects? That the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute threepence only of his property for the support of any one establishment may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?
-James Madison, A Memorial and Remonstrance
I must admit moreover that it may not be easy, in every possible case, to trace the line of separation between the rights of religion and the civil authority with such distinctness as to avoid collisions and doubts on unessential points. The tendency to a usurpation on one side or the other or to a corrupting coalition or alliance between them will be best guarded against by entire abstinence of the government from interference in any way whatever, beyond the necessity of preserving public order and protecting each sect against trespasses on its legal rights by others.
– James Madison, Letter Rev. Jasper Adams, Spring 1832
Is the appointment of Chaplains to the two Houses of Congress consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom? In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the U. S. forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion. The law appointing Chaplains establishes a religious worship for the national representatives, to be performed by Ministers of religion, elected by a majority of them; and these are to be paid out of the national taxes. Does not this involve the principle of a national establishment, applicable to a provision for a religious worship for the Constituent as well as of the representative Body, approved by the majority, and conducted by Ministers of religion paid by the entire nation?
The establishment of the chaplainship to Congs is a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles: The tenets of the chaplains elected by the majority shut the door of worship agst the members whose creeds & consciences forbid a participation in that of the majority. To say nothing of other sects, this is the case with that of Roman Catholics & Quakers who have always had members in one or both of the Legislative branches. Could a Catholic clergyman ever hope to be appointed a Chaplain! To say that his religious principles are obnoxious or that his sect is small, is to lift the evil at once and exhibit in its naked deformity the doctrine that religious truth is to be tested by numbers or that the major sects have a tight to govern the minor.
If Religion consist in voluntary acts of individuals, singly, or voluntarily associated, and it be proper that public functionaries, as well as their Constituents shd discharge their religious duties, let them like their Constituents, do so at their own expense. How small a contribution from each member of Cong wd suffice for the purpose! How just wd it be in its principle! How noble in its exemplary sacrifice to the genius of the Constitution; and the divine right of conscience! Why should the expence of a religious worship be allowed for the Legislature, be paid by the public, more than that for the Ex. or Judiciary branch of the Gov
– James Madison, Detached Memoranda, Undated (circa 1820)
I give these exhaustive comments in many argue that the intention of the Founding Fathers was that the United States be a Christian nation. As can be seen, this is most certainly not the case. James Madison makes it very clear that the majority believing in a certain faith is not justification for its elevation.
From my perspective, it is clear we are already far beyond what the Founders intended. Consider the hot-button issues of the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” being written on all currency. Neither of those are original traditions. The original text of the Pledge of Allegiance, as written by the Baptist Miinister Francis Bellamy in 1892 was:
I Pledge Allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all.
The words “under God” were added in 1954 — in the midst of the Cold War against the officially atheist Soviet Union.
The reference to “In God We Trust” appearing on currency has a less consistent history. It began appearing (though inconsistently) in 1864. Since 1938 it has always been on all currency and has been required by law since 1955. However, even presidents have found this distasteful. Theodore Roosevelt wrote to William Brody in 1907:
My own feeling in the matter is due to my very firm conviction that to put such a motto on coins, or to use it in any kindred manner, not only does no good but does positive harm, and is in effect irreverence, which comes dangerously close to sacrilege… it seems to me eminently unwise to cheapen such a motto by use on coins, just as it would be to cheapen it by use on postage stamps, or in advertisements.
I bring all these examples up to illustrate my conviction that the Latin War Cross Memorial in the Mojave Desert, despite its noble intent, is a clear violation of both the letter and spirit of the First Amendment. The recent Supreme Court hearing seemed less focused on that issue than on whether it was acceptable to transfer that small parcel of land that the cross is on while retaining ownership of the remainder of the land around it.
If you’ve read some of my previous posts you’ll see that I consider myself a proud Catholic — so I am by no means hostile to religion. But the First Amendment gives me the right to be as hostile as I want without government interference, so long as I not use the government to interfere with someone else’s beliefs. That is the flip side of this separation. That I — and anyone else — have the right to worship as I please, free from government interference. Contrary to popular belief, there are numerous instance of the ACLU coming to the defense of the exercise of religion — even for Christians. Consider this small sample (for a larger sample, visit this list on the ACLU website) All text in the list below originates from the ACLU website.
- The ACLU of Arizona (2009) filed a lawsuit on behalf of a Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office detention officer who was demoted and eventually forced to leave for failing to abandon his practice of wearing a beard in accordance with his Muslim faith.
- The ACLU of Louisiana (2008) filed a brief before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit supporting an individual’s right to quote Bible verses on public streets in Zachary, Louisiana.
- The ACLU of Eastern Missouri (2008) sued the City of Poplar Bluff after the City’s public library disciplined a part-time employee who objected to participating in the promotion of a Harry Potter book. The employee, a devout Southern Baptist, had religious objections to the promotion, which she believed encouraged children to worship the occult. The lawsuit argued that the city violated federal law by refusing to accommodate her sincerely held religious beliefs.
- The ACLU of Florida (2007) argued in favor of the right of Christians to protest against a gay pride event held in the City of St. Petersburg. The city had proposed limiting opposition speech, including speech motivated by religious beliefs, to restricted “free speech zones.” After receiving the ACLU’s letter, the city revised its proposed ordinance.
- The ACLU of Pennsylvania (2007) came to the defense of a second-grade student who, in response to a class assignment to write a story, submitted a story about Easter and redemption. After the teacher rejected the submission because of its religious content, the ACLU wrote a letter to the school on the student’s behalf. The principal and teacher subsequently apologized, and the principal agreed to instruct his teachers on the law.
This shows how while the First Amendment limits the government, it empowers the people. As it is meant to.