The Framers minced no words:
The Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
Under the newly formed republic there was to be no state church.
Unfortunately, many since then have misunderstood what Webster’s dictionary makes clear: The word “religion” is defined as “a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with dedication and faith.”
The U.S. Constitution demands that Congress make no laws respecting an establishment of religion – anyone’s religion – whether that religion includes a belief in God, or a belief that no god exists.
In the case Abington School District v. Schempp, Supreme Court Justice Thomas Clark said clearly:
The state may not establish a religion of secularism.
Webster’s dictionary defines secular as “that which relates to the worldly or temporal.”
Justice Clark, in that 1963 decision, eloquently explained what was forbidden by the state: There was to be no fusion of governmental and church functions, or a concert of dependency between them.
All of this background information relates exactly to the controversy at hand. Both history and recent Court cases show that National Day of Prayer is not a violation of the establishment clause – just as the prayer room in the United States Capitol Building is not, and the portrayal of Moses and the Ten Commandments inside the Supreme Court Chamber is not.
In 1971, Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote what was to become the framework for judging many Establishment Clause cases. In Lemon v. Kurtzman, a three-pronged test was initiated to assist the court in determining when a state action was an excessive entanglement in, and a promotion of, one religion over another.
Since then the Court utilized the test to prevent what Americans, and the First Amendment want prevented: the establishment of a state religion. In several important cases the Supreme Court struck down statutes that violated the Establishment Clause.
Both in 1983 and 1984, the author of the Lemon test, Chief Justice Burger himself, explained that the Lemon test was limited as a measurement in this sensitive area. In Marsh v. Chambers and Lynch v. Donnelly, Burger wrote for the majority in Lynch that action to remove all traces from government of our heritage of a belief in God was a “stilted overreaction contrary to our history.”
Those who argue with the majority opinion in the Lynch case do not understand that a government that does not acknowledge that some of its people believe in God would be a government that favored those who did not. A government which insists upon absolutely no references to a divine being would be in violation of the First Amendment by establishing a secular religion.
History is replete with evidence of the fact that the Founders and governmental official in this country over the years understood the difference between an establishment and a tolerable acknowledgement of religion. Chief Justice wrote that “Entanglement is a question of kind and degree.” Each case must be judged individually.
The Doctrine of Tolerable Acknowledgement was set forth in the 1983 Marsh v. Chambers opinion of Chief Justice Burger. Tolerable acknowledgements of our religious heritage by governmental institutions are a far cry from mandating an allegiance to one particular religion.
Up next: Part 3.