Citizens Project

Freedom Watch Online  December 2009
Our Founding Principles

Citizens Project Executive Director Barb Van Hoy wrote the following opinion piece in response to a column which originally appeared in the Gazette, titled A time for joy, a time for cheer, a time for atheist lawsuits.

Wise, scholarly, and devoutly religious arguments can be found on both sides of the debate about the role religion should play in public life. Hysterical polemics are more common, and the piece by Jessica Peck Corry (Gazette 12/6/09) appears to be the latter disguised as the former.


Founding DocumentsCould it be true, as Corry argues, that the American courts have "royally screwed up what our nation's founders intended as the proper relationship between government and religious freedom?"  Under a headline mocking Atheists for some unnamed lawsuits allegedly meant to douse everyone's Christmas cheer, Corry recycles the claim that our courts are wrongly utilizing Thomas Jefferson's concept of the separation of church and state to "purge religion from the public square." Such alarmist statements, which become more prevalent around the holidays, should raise suspicion among thoughtful readers. 


Court rulings most often accused of "purging religion" are those that restrain government institutions from expressly endorsing or promoting religion. The alarmists falsely equate government neutrality on religion with eliminating or excluding it. For example, the courts recently affirmed the right of a school district to prohibit a valedictorian from proselytizing her fellow classmates in a graduation speech if such speeches are reviewed and sanctioned by school officials. (Although the plaintiff violated the policy by departing from her approved remarks and urging listeners to follow Jesus, the religious press fanned the flames of uninformed outrage by characterizing her as being "punished for mentioning Jesus.") Yet in other rulings the courts have allowed nondenominational prayer at graduations and government meetings. That's hardly kicking God out. Another target of these accusations: rulings that prohibit courthouses from erecting monuments exclusively to the Ten Commandments. ChampagneHowever, the courts have allowed government forums to display religious monuments as long as they allow equal access to a variety of religious viewpoints - again, not exactly excluding religion. Maintaining the wall of separation between church and state has never meant silencing all expressions of religious belief in public life. Rather, it is the barrier preventing government endorsement of religious doctrine. The "purge religion" accusers like Corry do not seem to understand the difference.


How about Corry's claim - by way of quoting the authors of "Under God: George Washington and the Question of Church and State" - that the founders' true intention was "a broader embrace of religion in our society"? This argument is generally based on the many pronouncements by our founding fathers extolling the importance of religion and morality. George Washington has become a favorite for opponents of church-state separation because he is a veritable fountain of pro-religion quotes. The problem with this line of thinking is that a high regard for the virtues of religion and morality does not equate to support for government endorsement of religion. During our nation's early years it was the devout and, arguably, radical Baptists who were among the strongest supporters of keeping government and religion separate. They understood that government interference with, or endorsement of, sectarian religion always threatens religious liberty.


Wall of SeparationBut ultimately, Jefferson's "wall of separation" is only a metaphor and is not, as Corry suggests, the sole legal basis of court rulings. The First Amendment begins, "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion," and it is this phrase that has been interpreted by the courts, in ruling after ruling, to prohibit government "endorsement" or "promotion" of religious doctrine. The balance of the historical record supports this interpretation. And, unless it is your own religion being endorsed, it's clear that any official government promotion of religion, or Atheism for that matter, divides citizens and threatens liberty. It labels some as privileged insiders and others as less-valued outsiders.


If you kick out the nativity scene and the menorah, Corry argues, then "it's only a matter of time before the Unitarians, Wiccans, Scientologists, and yoga instructors are kicked out too." This statement not only confuses endorsement with expression, but ignores the fact that Christian holiday displays are really the only ones that have ever been welcomed.


GrinchIt is easy to label Atheists as The Grinch because they don't want a nativity scene at City Hall. But while some religious partisans grow angrier and angrier at not having their faith affirmed by government and in public schools (and now by retailers, too), the rest of us - including many devout Christians - appreciate that our religious freedom is protected by the Constitution through our government's religious neutrality.

Religious Freedom in the United States

It's that time of year again... Not just the holiday season, but the time when government officials nationwide test the boundaries of separation of church and state, and in some cases, face the consequences. For our part, Citizens Project's efforts are focused on local government, but thanks to our good friends at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, we bring you the "best of the worst" in recent national violations:
  • Wisconsin Sheriff's Proselytism - In 2006, a Milwaukee County Sheriff invited the Fellowship of Christian Centurions to give proselytizing talks at mandatory deputy sheriff meetings. On December 4, 2009, the 7th District Court of Appeals upheld a ruling that this was unconstitutional.  
  • Connecticut's School Graduation at Church - Public schools in Enfield, Connecticut have held graduation ceremonies at a local Christian church. In November 2009, Americans United and the ACLU sent a letter detailing the violation of church/state separation, asking the school board to find an alternate venue, or be sued. 
  • Christian Prison Proposal in Oklahoma - The Oklahoma Department of Corrections unveiled a plan this year for a private "Christian Prison," and Americans United took prompt action to educate officials on the law surrounding public funding and religious indoctrination. License Plate
  • South Carolina's License Plates - In November, a federal judge banned South Carolina's "I believe" license plates because they violate the first amendment of the US Constitution.

Citizens Project reminds you to contact us if you see or hear of overt violations of church/state separation.

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