I just got an email from Americans United for Separation of Church and State praising a federal district court for striking down the congressionally mandated National Day of Prayer. (More of my thoughts below.) In the decision (PDF), U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb said the following of the law:
It goes beyond mere “acknowledgment” of religion because its sole purpose is to encourage all citizens to engage in prayer, an inherently religious exercise that serves no secular function in this context. In this instance, the government has taken sides on a matter that must be left to individual conscience.
After recognizing the importance of prayer to many believers, Crabb goes on to defend her decision:
However, recognizing the importance of prayer to many people does not mean that the government may enact a statute in support of it, any more than the government may encourage citizens to fast during the month of Ramadan, attend a synagogue, purify themselves in a sweat lodge or practice rune magic. In fact, it is because the nature of prayer is so personal and can have such a powerful effect on a community that the government may not use its authority to try to influence an individual’s decision whether and when to pray.
I’m glad that she included some mysticism and arcana along with other religions, just to demonstrate they’re all on the same page.
Just as a reminder: the National Day of Prayer was instituted in 1952; “Under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954; and “In God We Trust” replaced “E Pluribus Unum” as the national motto in 1956. These decisions were all made to protect the United States from the evil of Soviet atheism. They all came during the same period of time to try to squelch nonbelief in the US.
Here’s another great excerpt from the decision:
Reasonable minds often differ regarding the appropriate balance in a given case. However, unlike other branches of government, the federal courts may not avoid controversial decisions or rely on public opinion in making those decisions when the answer is not clear. Rather, courts must review the applicable law in each case and determine in good faith how that law applies to the facts. That general commitment to the rule of law applies with equal force when a decision may conflict with the deeply held beliefs of many, or even a majority, of citizens.
If you’re curious, Crabb explains in the decision that a test for whether a government action violates the establishment clause looks at if “(1) it has no secular purpose; (2) its primary effect advances or inhibits religion; or (3) it fosters an excessive entanglement with religion.”
She explains that while some may see government endorsement of religion as “a desirable way to promote public morality and strengthen community bonds,” it has consequences as well:
However, religious expression by the government that is inspirational and comforting to a believer may seem exclusionary or even threatening to someone who does not share those beliefs. This is not simply a matter of being “too sensitive” or wanting to suppress the religious expression of others.
This leads to the creation of “in” groups and “out” groups, as those of us in the “out” group have known for a long time.
I think it’s absolutely great to see this kind of redeeming language tearing down the religious privilege in our country. We simply cannot continue to let society get away with the assumption that everybody is religious or everyone is even okay with religion.
I gave this post a somewhat inflammatory headline our of jest, because I know that religious groups are going to blow up about this. “This is an attack on religion! This is an attack on our values!” Those will undoubtedly be the headlines tomorrow on AFA and WND. I can’t wait to see FOX News whine about it.
But this is truly a victory and hopefully a wake-up call. These are “little” issues, but they are not insignificant. We are slowly deconstructing religious privilege and undoing the paranoid precedents set in the 1950s.
Will this decision affect our everyday lives? For the most part, no. But it has a huge impact on how we frame discussions. This is a true victory for religious freedom and freedom from religion, the true values our founding fathers embedded in our Constitution.