October 2019 Church & State Magazine | Editorial

In 1950, nearly 95 percent of Am­ericans said they belonged to Christian denominations. That figure today stands at 70 percent, and, according to some scholars of American religion, it’s likely to continue dropping.

There are many reasons for this seismic change in U.S. religious demographics, but the upshot is that our nation is becoming more diverse than ever when it comes to matters of faith. Fueled in part by the rise of the “nones” – people who, when asked to name a religious preference, reply “none” – the United States is also gradually seeing the growth of a cohort of citizens with a wholly secular outlook.

In light of these changes, this is exactly the wrong time for our courts to assert a position of privilege for Christianity – yet that is exactly what they are doing.

A few months ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the government’s ownership and display of a towering cross in Bladensburg, Md., was not a violation of church-state separation. The high court asserted that the cross, which had stood for nearly 100 years, had taken on a secular cast over time, and people were so used to seeing it that it had become ingrained in the community.

The court’s reasoning is specious. The cross is the preeminent symbol of the Christian faith. It’s not somehow magically stripped of its theological meaning because of the passage of time. No amount of tortured logic from the Supreme Court can mitigate the fact that government should never be in the business of owning, displaying and maintaining religious symbols.

No amount of tortured logic from the Supreme Court can mitigate the fact that government should never be in the business of owning, displaying and maintaining religious symbols.

Alarmingly, we’re already seeing the fallout from that misguided decision. A federal appeals court cited it when it ruled Aug. 23 that non-theists may be excluded from offering invocations before the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

It’s important to remember that the plaintiffs in the Pennsylvania case, which was sponsored in part by Americans United, were not trying to stop prayers before the state House. They merely sought equal time. They wanted what Christian groups take for granted – the right, on occasion, to deliver an invocation to legislators. The only difference is that theirs would have been secular. The appeals court turned them away, asserting that only believers in the divine can offer invocations that meet the historical solemnizing goal of legislative prayer.

The ruling clearly extends a benefit to believers that isn’t offered to non-theists – the right to address and interact with high levels of government. Furthermore, the decision requires lawmakers to wade into a theological thicket. The majority opinion insists that all believers in God should be extended the right to deliver legislative prayers, including Buddhists. But in his dissent, Judge L. Felipe Restrepo was not convinced, noting that many Buddhists lack belief in a personal god. (The same could be said of Unitarians – some believe in God and some do not.)

And what about a New Age practitioner who defines “God” as a spirit of goodness that moves through everyone, or a Wiccan who sees God in nature all around us? Does that count, or does the definition of “divine” have to be more traditional?

Are legislators to quiz would-be invocation givers to ensure that they believe in a concept of a deity that gibes with the state’s official definition? Even assuming our legislators were competent to make such determinations, who seriously thinks that is a good way for them to spend their time? It has the odor of a modern-day Inquisition.

All of that is bad enough, but the most troubling thing about the Pennsylvania decision is that it relegates Americans of a secular bent – atheists, agnostics, humanists, free­thinkers, etc. – to second-class status. It tells them that their belief system isn’t as good as theism and that what they have to offer their own government is of lesser value, or no value at all.

Under a proper understanding of separation of church and state, what a citizen believes about God (and indeed whether he or she even believes at all), should be completely irrelevant to his or her standing in the eyes of the government. These recent rulings make religious belief, or lack thereof, more than relevant – they make it para­mount.

Under a proper understanding of separation of church and state, what a citizen believes about God (and indeed whether he or she even believes at all), should be completely irrelevant to his or her standing in the eyes of the government. These recent rulings make religious belief, or lack thereof, more than relevant – they make it para­mount.

The system of official governmental favoritism toward religion and religious people that the courts are adopting will become unworkable as demographics in America continue to shift. The courts have given us a recipe for conflict and tension. Only one thing can avert that: maintaining the distance between religion and government called for in our Constitution.