Do Atheists have a Constitutional Right to be Free of Religion?
So asks Sam Nicholas:
In San Francisco today, United States District Judge Lawrence Karlton ruled that reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools was not constitutional because the pledge's reference to one nation "under God" violates a Constitutional right to be "free from a coercive requirement to affirm God.”
This case frames in a most dramatic way the question of whether we are a secular nation or a religious nation. Are we a nation “under God” or not? Should we be?
I can only respond with the following:
“On September 11, 2001 I was attending in Rome, Italy an international conference of judges and lawyers, principally from Europe and the United States. That night and the next morning virtually all of the participants watched, in their hotel rooms, the address to the Nation by the President of the United States concerning the
murderous attacks upon the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, in which thousands of Americans had been killed. The address ended, as Presidential addresses often do, with the prayer “God bless America.” The next afternoon I was approached by one of the judges from a European country, who, after extending his profound condolences for my country's loss, sadly observed “How I wish that the Head of State of my country, at a similar time of national tragedy and distress, could conclude his address ‘God bless ______.’ It is of course absolutely forbidden.” That is one model of the relationship between church and state-a model spread across Europe by the armies of Napoleon, and reflected in the Constitution of France, which begins “France is [a] ••• secular ••• Republic.” Religion is to be strictly excluded from the public forum. This is not, and never was, the model adopted by America. George Washington added to the form of Presidential oath prescribed by Art. II, § 1, cl. 8, of the Constitution, the concluding words “so help me God.” The Supreme Court under John Marshall opened its sessions with the prayer, “God save the United States and this Honorable Court.” The First Congress instituted the practice of beginning its legislative sessions with a prayer. The same week that Congress submitted the Establishment Clause as part of the Bill of Rights for ratification by the States, it enacted legislation providing for paid chaplains in the House and Senate. The day after the First Amendment was proposed, the same Congress that had proposed it requested the President to proclaim “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed, by acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the many and signal favours of Almighty God.” President Washington offered the first Thanksgiving Proclamation shortly thereafter, devoting November 26, 1789 on behalf of the American people ‘to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that is, that was, or that will be,’ thus beginning a tradition of offering gratitude to God that continues today. The same Congress also reenacted the Northwest Territory Ordinance of 1787, 1 Stat. 50, Article III of which provided: “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” And of course the First Amendment itself accords religion (and no other manner of belief) special constitutional protection. These actions of our First President and Congress and the Marshall Court were not idiosyncratic; they reflected the beliefs of the period. Those who wrote the Constitution believed that morality was essential to the well-being of society and that encouragement of religion was the best way to foster morality. The fact that the Founding Fathers believed devotedly that there was a God and that the unalienable rights of man were rooted in Him is clearly evidenced in their writings, from the Mayflower Compact to the Constitution itself. President Washington opened his Presidency with a prayer, and reminded his fellow citizens at the conclusion of it that “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” President John Adams wrote to the Massachusetts Militia, “we have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Thomas Jefferson concluded his second inaugural address by inviting his audience to pray: “I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life; who has covered our infancy with His providence and our riper years with His wisdom and power and to whose goodness I ask you to join in supplications with me that He will so enlighten the minds of your servants, guide their councils, and prosper their measures that whatsoever they do shall result in your good, and shall secure to you the peace, friendship, and approbation of all nations.” James Madison, in his first inaugural address, likewise placed his confidence “in the guardianship and guidance of that Almighty Being whose power regulates the destiny of nations, whose blessings have been so conspicuously dispensed to this rising Republic, and to whom we are bound to address our devout gratitude for the past, as well as our fervent supplications and best hopes for the future.”
Nor have the views of our people on this matter significantly changed. Presidents continue to conclude the Presidential oath with the words “so help me God.” Our legislatures, state and national, continue to open their sessions with prayer led by official chaplains. The sessions of this Court continue to open with the prayer “God save the United States and this Honorable Court.” Invocation of the Almighty by our public figures, at all levels of government, remains commonplace. Our coinage bears the motto “IN GOD WE TRUST.” And our Pledge of Allegiance contains the acknowledgment that we are a Nation “under God.” As one of our Supreme Court opinions rightly observed, ‘We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.’ With all of this reality (and much more) staring it in the face, how can the Court possibly assert that ‘the First Amendment mandates governmental neutrality between ••• religion and nonreligion…’” From the Dissent by Justice Scalia, joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist, Justice Thomas, and Justice Kennedy in the Supreme Court Case McCreary County, Ky vs. American Civil Liberties Union of Ky (2005), citations and footnotes omitted.
According to the American Religious Identification Survey 2001, less than a half of a percent of the population are self-declared Atheists. The Liberal activists in the US Supreme Court may also soon become a minority. Perhaps there is still hope for help from God.
In the Middle,
I would comment that I think the dichotomy between a "secular" nation and a "religious" nation is false: specifically, belief in God is fundamentally philosophical and as such is consistent with both secular and religious cultures. I would agree that the US Constitution creates a secular republic, but would disagree that this means that all public references to God are excluded--as the evidence of the founding fathers in the above post amply supports.