FROM THE ARCHVES (Daily Nebraskan columns)
Does government still advocate religion?
Jeremy Patrick firstname.lastname@example.org
Daily Nebraskan www.dailyneb.com
December 04, 2000
"When we lose the right to be different, we lose the privilege to be free."
--Charles Evans Hughes
The proponents of strict separation between church and state have won many important victories in this century: We've seen the end of forced school prayer, religious tests for political office and the teaching of creationism.
Of course, sometimes these issues are re-ignited under different guises: "moments of silence" in place of school prayer and "intelligent design theory" in place of creationism. A slightly different but growing controversy in this country is the dispute over the Constitutionality of so-called "ceremonial deisms."
Ceremonial deisms are the little things government does to invoke religion in specific circumstances, such as opening sessions of legislature with prayer, placing references to God in the Pledge of Allegiance and engraving "In God We Trust" on coins.
They're called "deisms" because they're generic references to a Supreme Being and not references to specific deities, such as Jesus or Jehovah.
Until recently, ceremonial deisms laid largely unnoticed in the war for separation between church and state because civil libertarians had so many other important battles to fight. When legal challenges were brought, they were dismissed out-of-hand as not involving government sponsorship of religion.
For example, although the Supreme Court has never ruled on the issue, federal courts have thrice upheld the use of "In God We Trust" in coins. The Ninth Circuit says it’s because the inscription "is of a patriotic or ceremonial character and bears no true resemblance to a governmental sponsorship of a religious exercise." Other courts holdings that no objective observer could consider ceremonial deisms an endorsement of religion are beginning to change. Recently, a federal court held that Ohio's state motto "With God, all things are possible" violated the separation of church and state. Although an appeal is pending, the court's decision was sound.
If, for example, the State of Nebraska placed the motto "In Capitalism We Trust" on all of its license plates, would we say it's not an endorsement of capitalism? Could we truly say the State is neutral on whether people should believe in capitalism, socialism or communism?
The fact that ceremonial deisms like "In God We Trust" do not name specific religious figures is irrelevant. Even the term "God" excludes many religions. Wiccans who believe in a Goddess are not included; Hindus who believed in several gods instead of one God are not included; Native Americans who believe in nature and earth spirits are not included. For them, the only implication is that they are not part of the "We" and therefore, they are somehow less-than-American.
The Constitution does not only bar the government from favoring a particular religion, it also bars it from favoring religion over non-religion. Any objective observer would be forced to admit that a phrase like "In God We Trust" clearly indicates that theism is preferred to atheism or agnosticism.
Of course, research studies could easily show what Americans believe the symbols mean, but courts have invariably held that they can tell what an "objective observer" would think without the use of empirical evidence. When courts act irrationally like this, religious minorities can only see ceremonial deisms as a cry for conformity instead of diversity.
Some courts uphold ceremonial deisms because they believe there is no real harm done. These courts, however, overlook the fact that the existence of ceremonial deisms is used to support other unconstitutional practices.
As legal scholar Steven Epstein put, "the implications of ceremonial deism are far-reaching because courts frequently employ this amorphous concept as a springboard from which to hold that other challenged practices do not violate the establishment clause."
Religious conservatives have realized this as well and often invoke ceremonial deisms to justify other laws. For example, according to the Associated Press, when the Colorado Board of Education considered whether to display "In God We Trust" in public schools, supporters said they "believe the courts cannot object to a phrase that appears on U.S. currency."
Advocates of displaying the Ten Commandments in public schools, placing nativity scenes on public property and having prayers at graduation ceremonies have all used similar arguments.
The line between church and state is not always easy to draw. It does not require government hostility towards religion; an upcoming Supreme Court decision will address whether schools should be required to treat religious student organizations like other student organizations when it comes to the use of school facilities.
For most civil libertarians, this is not a real problem because the school is acting neutrally, and neither the intent nor the effect will be a government sponsorship of religion. An important interest in allowing intellectual discussion to grow unhindered is served.
But the government has no legitimate purpose in using ceremonial deisms. There is nothing served by ceremonial deisms (such as rendering an occasion "solemn") that cannot be accomplished by non-religious invocations. The harm they cause, on the other hand, is very real: They marginalize religious minorities and add strength to those who advocate even more entanglement between religion and government.
And if ceremonial deisms are really so non-religious in character, why do religious conservatives fight so strongly for their preservation?