The state establishment of atheism?


By: Robert E. Meyer

Along with the “coming out” of militant atheism in recent years, there has been a growing perception that freedom of religion is tantamount to public freedom from religion and, such pursuit is a legitimate objective of The First Amendment. Such sentiment was displayed lately in an editorial I read, which postulated that the ideological separation between church and state was proscribed by the First Amendment.

We just saw another example of this folly, when a lawsuit by perpetually disgruntled atheist plaintiffs, Michael Newdow, The FFRF, and others, was filed to stop the words “So help me God,” from being uttered during the swearing in ceremony of the presidential inauguration.

Such absurdity is easily exposed when we insert other concepts as a substitute. If “freedom of speech” means “freedom from speech,” then we would abridge the rights of many to uphold the privilege of a few, while negating the traditional understanding of tolerance. I suppose the idea is that you have religious freedom so long as you are allowed to pray in your closet, or even, perhaps, be allowed to attend a house of worship where the clergy steer clear of addressing cultural issues.

In his treatise, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States(1833), Justice Joseph Story, the foremost legal scholar of his era, stated that the First Amendment was never intended for state imposed negative neutrality toward religion expression. It was crafted to insure the prohibition of a particular ecclesiastical establishment by federal government and, to uphold the religious liberty of conscience for the individual. Story tells us…

“We are not to attribute this prohibition of a national religious establishment [in the First Amendment] to an indifference to religion in general, and especially to Christianity (which none could hold in more reverence than the framers of the Constitution)”

“At the time of the adoption of the constitution, and of the amendment to it, now under consideration [i.e., the First Amendment], the general, if not the universal sentiment in America was, that Christianity ought to receive encouragement from the state, so far as was not incompatible with the private rights of conscience, and the freedom of religious worship. Any attempt to level all religions, and to make it a matter of state policy to hold all in utter indifference, would have created universal disapprobation, if not universal indignation.”

After the framing of the First Amendment, Congress called on President Washington to proclaim a day of prayer and thanksgiving. His proclamation began with…

“Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God…”

The very legislative body which framed the First Amendment, saw that the acknowledgment of God was not only a permissible act of state under the First Amendment, but a requirement of the nations under God.

Over the last sixty years we’ve witnessed a change of meaning in the religious clauses of the First Amendment, engineered by the judiciary. The change has moved from forbidding a national church, to embracing the avoidance of religious acknowledgment. This has allowed religious suppression organizations to claim state acknowledgment of God is the establishment of religion, thus using the Constitution as a hammer to restrict public religious free speech and exercise. This idea has no historical merit and, astute believers merely want a return to the First Amendment jurisprudence existing before Everson v. Board of Education (1947).

In his dissent, Justice Potter Stewart, in the School District of Abington Township v. Schempp (1963) SCOTUS case, expressed concern that the trend toward expunging public religious practices in the school settings, could result in establishing secular humanism.

“…a refusal to permit religious exercises thus is seen, not as the realization of state neutrality, but rather as the establishment of a religion of secularism.”

Years later, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who did an exhaustive historical review of the First Amendment in his Jaffrey v. Wallace (1985) dissent, referred to this posture of jurisprudence, as a “bristling hostility toward religion.”

Contemporary atheists are increasingly likely to define atheism (the soft definition) as “a lack of belief in God,” for reasons extending beyond the scope of this piece, rather than the historical and garden variety definitions that quickly come to mind. But, if atheism is defined merely as a “lack of belief in God,” then does legal prohibition against acknowledgment of God (the lack of acknowledgment) by the state, likewise result in establishment of atheism by default?

That conclusion, though it will be challenged, seems inescapable.

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