The United States: Christian nation or land for all religions? There seems to be some debate over which is the correct answer to that question. Some Christians believe that since they are the majority in the country, it is their nation to rule based on biblical teachings and values. This debate has popped into the mainstream media via whether nativity scenes can be displayed on public land, whether government officials can choose not to enforce the law due to a conflicting religious view, and whether businesses can choose whom to serve based on their religious beliefs. So how can these debates be settled using the law?
These disagreements over where to draw the line between Church and State can begin to be settled by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
From this small piece of text, almost all of church-state relations has been decided. “Congress” has essentially been interpreted as the entire government regardless of the branch; the Fourteenth Amendment then applied this Amendment and all others to the states as well. Thus, no level of government can make laws that the First Amendment prohibits. The two restrictions on law are: 1. not to sponsor any one religion & 2. not to prohibit any one religion from being practiced by the citizens of the country. Therefore, the United States legally cannot have a state religion nor ban the practice of any others. This Amendment mandates that no special privilege ever be given to one religion over any others. Overall, the First Amendment ensures the citizenry that the United States cannot be a Christian nation, Muslim nation, or Jewish nation. It must be a secular nation that allows for the practice of any and all religions.
To prove this point even further, it is important to note that the Constitution does not contain any of the following words: “Jesus Christ, Christianity, Bible, Creator, Divine, or God.” An original draft of the Declaration of Independence did not even mention the “creator” that is so famously cited when discussing “unalienable rights.” A treaty signed under the administration of George Washington once said, “The Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” These early pieces of evidence from the founding of the country demonstrate that the Founding Fathers never intended this to be a nation for any one religion. Additionally, mention of God was added to paper currency and the Pledge of Allegiance in just the last sixty years.
From these old texts and the general notion of the separation of Church and State, it is noteworthy to examine how such law applies to modern cases regarding religiosity in the public sphere.
In general, laws cannot be created based on the beliefs of one particular religion. In order to be constitutional, a law must have secular grounds not tied specifically to any one religion for this would be a sponsorship of that religion.
Regarding cases of public displays of nativity scenes, these situations can fall in two different ways. Since public land qualifies as any land owned by the government, such can either allow displays from all religions or not allow any as to not favor one religion over another. Thus, a city government cannot choose to have exclusively a nativity scene outside the town hall without allowing for Jews, Muslims, and any other religious group to also display something. If this is not feasible, then no religious displays can be on this public land. It’s essentially all or nothing–no special privilege for any one religion.
Regarding religious prayer before government meetings, all religious groups must be given the opportunity to lead an introduction. If this is not done, then no prayer can be given. Concerning prayer in public school, teachers cannot lead prayer in front of students as that would be a government sponsorship of a religion. Thus, a moment of silence can only be led by a teacher, but students still have the liberty to practice how they wish individually.
Regarding religious teachings in public schools, these types of lessons must be presented in the context of a study of multiple religions without favor given to one. Religious teachings that concern other areas of study, such as Creationism, cannot be taught as they lack secular evidence and support.
Regarding a government official not carrying out the law due to a conflicting religious belief, this issue was discussed in depth in “‘Contempt’: KY Clerk Ordered To Jail for Denying Homosexuals Marriage Licenses” as this area of concern arose recently in the debate over the enforcement of same-sex marriage in the United States. These legal questions have centered around both the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which ensures that religious beliefs are not infringed upon with “undue burden” and unless the State has a “compelling interest” in achieving a certain objective. Specifically concerning the case of Kentucky County Clerk Kim Davis, she argued that forcing her to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples against her religious beliefs would be an undue burden. However, she has lost in multiple courts as the government does indeed have a compelling interest to ensure the upholding of same-sex couples’ constitutional rights, which include the right to wed. Kim Davis countered that an accommodation could be made for her so that she did not have to sign the marriage licenses. However, such could not be done since being County Clerk means that the marriage licenses had to go through her. Accommodations are only possible if rights will still certainly be protected.
Regarding whether businesses can choose whom to serve based on religious beliefs, this concerns what is known as public accommodation law. Since businesses serve the public a good, they are not free to discriminate to whom they serve that good. Clubs and houses of worship are free to choose members, but businesses are not. This type of law stems from the government’s constitutional right to regulate interstate commerce. Since denying certain people access to commerce eventually affects interstate commerce, the government has the right to mandate that all people have a right to participate in commerce. Even sincerely held religious beliefs are not justification for denying another American his or her right to commerce. Thus, no one can be discriminated against in this sense. Federal law explicitly protects almost all classes ranging from sex to religion to race yet does not protect sexual orientation. However, even if the federal law does not explicitly protect some classes, many cases have been fought in the courts to have additional groups protected. Additionally, many states explicitly protect more classes than federal law.
It is apparent through these various facets of the law that the United States allows for free private practice of any religion by the citizenry. However, the government cannot endorse or give special privilege to any one religion over another. Additionally, businesses that serve the public are not free to use religion to violate the rights of other Americans. Thus, the United States is a secular nation full of many religious and nonreligious people who are free to live however they wish as long as they do not infringe upon the civil liberties of others.