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Religion and Government

Be very careful about advocating a theocracy.
It might be under the control of someone else's religion.

Copyright © 2003-2004, 2006 by David E. Ross

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …

U. S. Constitution, Amendment I

In 1802, President Jefferson wrote a letter to a group of Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut, in which he declared that it was the purpose of the First Amendment to build "a wall of separation between Church and State."

The Writings of Thomas Jefferson 281 (A. Libscomb ed., 1904).

The course of constitutional neutrality … is to insure that no religion be sponsored or favored …

U. S. Supreme Court, Walz vs Tax Commission of City of New York

The fundamental law of our nation — the basis of our liberties — is the Constitution, not the Bible. Indeed, it is the Constitution that elected officials are sworn to uphold.

© 2003 by David Ross

The Government Sponsors a Day of Prayer

The Cross

The Ten Commandments

A Christian Nation

We Decree

Government Interference

The Big Entanglement

The Government Sponsors a Day of Prayer

A Divisive Spirit Reigns Over National Day of Prayer Ceremony

MUNCIE, Ind. — For the last decade, Rev. William Keller has stood on the broad steps of City Hall on the first Thursday in May — with city officials, local judges and a police chaplain at his side — to pray in the name of Jesus Christ.

He planned to mark the National Day of Prayer the same way this year: A welcome from the mayor, a fervent plea that God guide civic leaders to act wisely, an echoing choir of "Amen" from the crowd of several hundred gathered.

Then Keller was asked to share the microphone.

A Unitarian Universalist minister wanted to speak at the Day of Prayer ceremony, to offer an ecumenical "meditation" on leadership. A leader of the small Muslim community here requested a chance to pray aloud to Allah. A Jewish rabbinical fellow said he, too, would like to address the crowd.

Keller turned them down. Anyone of any faith could come listen to him pray. But he would not listen to them. "I'm busy with my faith," he said in an interview this week. "I don't believe in other gods."

From a 1 May 2003 news item
in the Los Angeles Times

The National Day of Prayer was intended to bring Americans together with a feeling of unity. Instead, we see divisiveness. Is this what we want in our communities?

According to the Indianapolis Star, only 125 persons attended Keller's noon prayer service. Four hours later, 180 persons attended a multi-faith service in a pouring rain. This latter service included a Jewish prayer in Hebrew and English, a Muslim prayer in Arabic, a Hindu prayer in Sanskrit, and reflections from Christians, Bahais and an atheist. Even in small-town mid-America, religious diversity exists. We should not use our government to create religious uniformity.

The Cross

*** Begin Right Sidebar ***

The solution cannot be merely to give Judaism an equally prominent display of its symbols. Judaism forbids the worship of symbols. In any case, this would require equality for Islam, Hinduism, Bahai, Buddhism, Wiccan, and — yes — atheism.

And how would you judge equality? Would it be Judaism measured against Christianity, or would it be Reform Judaism against Lutheranism? In the former case, would Islam be entitled to the same measure as all Protestant churches combined or all Christian beliefs together? In the latter case, would each Protestant church be equal against Shiite Islam. Would atheism have the same prominence as all of religion or only as much as Lamaistic Buddhism?

Do we give equal prominence to a religion whose dogma supports the elimination of other religions?

No, equality is impossible. Government should not even attempt to define it.

*** End Right Sidebar ***

Across the U.S., crosses appear on various hills and in parks, owned by state or local governments. Often, a cross was erected when the property was privately owned; the land was then donated to the government. Sometimes, volunteers erected a cross on land that was already owned by the government.

These crosses are often defended as historical landmarks. Lighted high on a hill, one was described as a beacon on a dark night. All that might be true. But above all, a cross is a symbol of Christianity that makes me (a Jew) feel unwelcome in a community that displays it proudly. And when public officials — elected to represent all the people — maintain a cross on public land, I feel betrayed because they do not represent me; they represent only Christians.

Religious freedom requires that government not own, maintain, or subsidize crosses.

Congress enacted a bill — signed into law by President Bush on 14 August 2006 — to make the cross on Mount Solidad in San Diego into a federal war memorial under ownership of the Department of Defense. This legislation was explicitly intended to subvert lawsuits challenging the ownership and maintenance of the cross by the city of San Diego.

Supposedly, the cross honors those United States soldiers, sailors, marines, and aviators who died during the Korean War. But it surely does not honor those military casualties who were Jewish. What is required is not some small plaque or a two-foot star. What is required is a Jewish symbol as large and visible as the 43-foot cross on Mount Solidad.

And where is the symbol of honor for those military casualties who were atheists? Contrary to the Reverend William Cummings (1906-1944), there have been atheists fighting in every war.

See also Mt. McCoy and the Cross, A Personal Experience.

The Ten Commandments

Actually, God's laws contain over 600 commandments.

'Nonsequiter' cartoon; man giving speech demanding tolerance for his religious beliefs beats down someone else who suggests tolerance for other religions Chief Justice Roy Moore of the Alabama Supreme Court has been removed from office — not because he was a Christian missionary for the 10 commandments but because he violated his oath of office to uphold the Constitution and because he defied a federal district court order that was upheld by a federal appeals court, an order that the U.S. Supreme Court declined to overrule. Moore is not the first state or local official to run afoul of the separation between religion and government. When Rudy Giuliani was mayor of New York, he wanted to post copies of the 10 commandments in every public school classroom in the city (possibly reducing the number to 9 by deleting the prohibition against adultery).

Moore justified placing a 2.5 ton granite monument to the 10 commandments in his court house by declaring he answered to a higher authority than the Constitution and the laws of men. However, the U.S. Constitution is indeed the supreme law of this land, which is necessary when you think of the religions in this nation that do not consider the Bible to be the word of God and of the people who have no religion. Despite such differences, it is very good that we indeed have a single point of reference for our laws, a point of reference that does not depend on differing interpretations by priests, ministers, rabbis, imams, lamas, etc.

And those who claim the 10 commandments historically represent a common set of moral principles in our society fail to recognize that there is no agreement regarding the statement of those commandments. (Appeals to our Judeo-Christian heritage are false.) In the following tabulation, I put the commandments in the order I found them.

The Ten Commandments
JewishCatholic ProtestantRoy Moore
1. I, the Eternal, am your God who led you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. 1. I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt not have strange gods before me. 1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. 1. I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
2. You shall have no other gods besides me. 2. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. 2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments. 2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.
3. You shall not invoke the name of your Eternal God with malice. 3. Remember thou keep the Sabbath Day. 3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain: for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain. 3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
4. Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. 4. Honor thy Father and thy Mother. 4. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it. 4. Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy.
5. Honor your father and your mother. 5. Thou shalt not kill. 5. Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee. 5. Honor thy father and thy mother.
6. You shall not murder. 6. Thou shalt not commit adultery. 6. Thou shalt not kill. 6. Thou shalt not kill.
7. You shall not commit adultery. 7. Thou shalt not steal. 7. Thou shalt not commit adultery. 7. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
8. You shall not steal. 8. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. 8. Thou shalt not steal. 8. Thou shalt not steal.
9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 9. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife. 9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. 9. Thou shalt not bear false witness.
10. You shall not covet. 10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's goods. 10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor's. 10. Thou shalt not covet.
Gates of Repentance, Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1996
Source: Yahoo/Associated Press

Some comments about this comparison of commandments are in order.

Moore was removed from office by an Alabama judicial review panel. His appeal to restore the monument was denied by the U.S. Supreme Court. However, that denial does not end the issue. In Austin on the grounds of the Texas state capitol, there is a statuary garden. There, a Ten Commandments monument attracted the attention of Thomas Van Orden, who sued the state of Texas to have it removed on the grounds that it represents a government establishment of religion in violation of Amendment I. His lawsuit was rejected by the trial court, and his appeal was rejected by the Fifth Federal Circuit Court of Appeal. Van Orden has now filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court. Legal scholars think Van Orden's appeal will indeed be heard by the Supreme Court.

I want to make this clear: I didn't sue religion. I sued the state for putting a religious monument on Capitol grounds. You wouldn't put that statue on a Hindi's lawn, so why would you put it on the lawn of the Capitol, the home of all people? It is a message of discrimination. Government has to remain neutral.

Van Orden quoted by the Los Angeles Times, 9 December 2003

There seems no question that the government of Texas indeed sponsors the monument. It sits on government land reached through government walkways. As with the rest of the garden, it is maintained through taxes collected from Texans of all faiths. And if someone tripped and injured himself falling against the monument, the state government would be liable.

There should be no question that the monument in Texas represents an endorsement of a particular religion. The commandments on the monument begin very similarly to Roy Moore's list:

I am the LORD thy God.
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.
Note especially the second line. It not only rejects the images used by Hindus. It also rejects the statues of saints paraded during Catholic religious processions. This governmental rejection of polytheistic religions and prohibition against sacred objects is definitely not supported by our Constitution or our nation's heritage of religious freedom.

A Christian Nation

When Army Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin (Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Intelligence) declared the United States to be a Christian nation, he was not the first person in national leadership to make that mistake. Boykin and his kind would gladly turn the U.S. into a theocracy where Jews, Moslems, Buddhists, Hindus, and especially atheists would be most unwelcome.

However, this is not a Christian nation. This is a secular nation, home to individuals of many beliefs and of non-belief. This has never been a Christian nation.

Before the U.S. was even a nation, several of the colonies — Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Georgia among them — were settled by individuals escaping government-decreed Christianity in England.

Even before then, Native Americans practiced their own religions based on spirits of nature. Those religions survive today despite official attempts by our federal government to exterminate them in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

At the time of the Revolution, the colonies had a significant Jewish population. Haym Salomon — a wealthy New York merchant who happened to be Jewish — not only staked (and lost) his personal fortune to finance the Revolution but also negotiated subsidies from foreign governments for the conduct of the war. Salomon's loans to the Continental Congress were never repaid.

We Decree

… but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

U. S. Constitution, Article IV

Thus persons of all faiths — and atheists too — can be elected to public office in the United States. In 1960, this was an issue with the candidacy of John F. Kennedy (a Roman Catholic), just as it had been in 1928 with Alfred E. Smith (also a Roman Catholic). While the Constitution clearly stated that these men were indeed qualified to serve as President, many voters were concerned that the Pope in Rome would exercise too much control over the government if a Catholic were elected. To some extent, that concern led to Smith's defeat in 1928; and it may have caused Kennedy's victory in 1960 to be very narrow.

The separation of government and religion mandated in the Constitution not only means that the government should refrain from interfering with religion — not merely avoid supporting religion — but also religion should refrain from interfering with government. In particular, government decisions affecting citizens of all (and no) beliefs should not be based on the narrow dogma of one religion. As a candidate, Kennedy defused the situation by insisting that his Catholic faith would be kept private and not interfere with his public policy. He stated that no elected official should be "limited or conditioned by any religious oath, ritual or obligation."

Now, more than 40 years later, Kennedy's position is being undermined by his own religion …

Church May Penalize Politicians

Bishops are exploring requiring officeholders who are Catholic to back official doctrine

By William Lobdell and Teresa Watanabe, Times Staff Writers

Politicians' practices — known as "cafeteria Catholicism" — led U.S. bishops this month to begin exploring possible penalties for officeholders who ignore church doctrine. It would be the first time the U.S. church threatened to discipline individual politicians.

Punishments could range from bans on speaking appearances at Catholic institutions to excommunication.

Politicians, were they to remain faithful to key Catholic teachings, would have to oppose abortion, capital punishment, birth control, the war in Iraq and gay marriage.

Los Angeles Times, 29 November 2003

No, this is not peculiar to the Roman Catholic church. Other religions — failing to obtain their goals through sermons in the pulpit — also try to impose their dogma on us through legislation and other government actions. Whether the issue is prayer or creationism versus evolution in our public schools, the ten commandments in our court houses, or censorship of our books, it is wrong when it involves government enforcement of religious dogma. This is even a problem in other supposedly secular nations.

The citizens of our nation — not the College of Cardinals, the Southern Baptist Convention, or any synod — elect the President and Congress. Those who are elected should remember this, as should those religious leaders who would impose their beliefs on persons of other faiths.

No Communion for Some Lawmakers, Says U.S. Bishop

By Michael Conlon

Chicago (Reuters) — A Wisconsin bishop's decree denying Holy Communion to Roman Catholic lawmakers who support abortion or euthanasia is not likely to be widely adopted in other U.S. dioceses, a church expert said on Friday. But the political implications for Catholics of the directive from Bishop Raymond Burke of La Crosse — who takes over as archbishop of St. Louis later this month — caused a stir in the Wisconsin church.

The Catholic mayor of La Crosse, John Medinger, told the La Crosse Tribune the bishop was on thin ice and suggested the next step would be to tell Catholics whom to vote for under threat of excommunication.

Reuters/Yahoo, 9 January 2004

Bishop Burke needs to learn that Catholic politicians also represent Jewish and atheist voters. No elected official represents any church.

Colorado Bishop Warns Catholics

Denver (AP), 14 May 2004 — Catholics who vote for politicians in favor of abortion rights, stem-cell research, euthanasia or gay marriage may not receive Communion until they recant and repent in the confessional, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Colorado Springs said. Bishop Michael Sheridan's pronouncement was the strongest yet from a U.S. bishop in the debate over how faith should influence Catholics in this election year. The discussion of withholding Holy Communion had previously been limited to politicians themselves.

Sheridan made his remarks in a May 1 pastoral letter published in the diocese's newspaper. He said he singled out abortion, stem-cell research, euthanasia and gay marriage for criticism because they are "intrinsically evil." The letter was sent to each parish in the diocese, including 125,000 Catholics in 10 counties.

Formal Vatican pronouncements last year specified Catholic politicians' duty to uphold church teaching as they set policy on matters such as abortion and preventing the legalization of same-sex unions. Last month, Cardinal Francis Arinze said a Catholic politician who supports abortion rights "is not fit" to receive the Eucharist. The debate was spurred by Catholic presidential candidate John Kerry's support of abortion rights.

Sheridan said some Catholics have challenged him to extend his list of positions out of step with church teaching to include the death penalty or the war with Iraq. But Sheridan said he doesn't believe those matters carry the same weight.

Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter, a Catholic, criticized Sheridan's letter. "I just think this is a tragic direction for the bishop to take," Ritter said. "My great fear is that it will drive Catholics away from the church, Catholics who abide by the church teaching in everything they do but look at candidates and vote on a range of issues."

© 2004 The Associated Press.

Bishop Sheridan is trying to interfere with the electoral process by dictating — not suggesting but mandating — how citizens should vote. In order to enforce his dictum, he will have to violate the confidentiality and secrecy of the ballot. How would the Bishop react if politicians turned that around and demanded violation of the confidentiality and secrecy of the confessional?

I find it especially interesting that Bishop Sheridan's dictum covers abortion, stem cell research, euthanasia, and gay marriages but not the death penalty or the war with Iraq, both of which have been strongly condemned by the Pope. For that reason, the Bishop's decree smells very strongly of politics and not of religion. Again, we see a church leader trying to use politics to enforce his own religion's dogma on all of us, including those of us who follow other religions with different positions on these issues.

Government Interference

No, the problem does not solely involve government sponsorship of religion or interference by sectarian religion into the secular affairs of government. There is also the problem of government interfering with religion.

On 10 February 2004, the French National Assembly voted 494 to 36 to prohibit public school students from wearing religious symbols. This means that Moslem girls cannot wear head scarves, Jewish boys cannot wear yarmulkes, and Christian students cannot wear large crosses. This law is as odious as requiring all students to chant Hindu prayers. It represents government sponsorship of atheism — not in a totalitarian state but in a democracy!

While government should not sponsor either a particular religion or religion in general, it should also not oppose religion. Students displaying evidence of their own beliefs do no harm to anyone else. As long as they do not annoy others by proselytizing, their freedom of religion should not be inhibited.

And atheism should be as tolerated as any religious belief, but it should not be elevated to a government-sponsored belief.

The Big Entanglement

The largest entanglement of government and religion involves the most personal area of human relations — marriage. Marriage is generally seen as a religious institution. We often here about the sanctity of marriage, holy matrimony, the wedding sacrament, and "What God has put together … ". Yet the rights and obligations of spouses and the legalities of marriage occupy substantial portions of civil laws. In California, the Family Code contains 138 sections devoted to marriage, excluding the additional sections relating to the termination of marriage.

Here, we have the unique situation in which government delegates to ordained clergy the authority to establish a legal partnership that only the courts can terminate. In no other area of family law does such a delegation exist. Even adoption through a religious agency requires final approval by a government agency. (Note that a marriage license does not grant government approval of a marriage; it merely provides a means to record the result.)

We also have the government uniquely defining and regulating a situation established through a religious rite. The government does not define or regulate baptism, bris, confirmation, or bar mitzvah. And here, we have government — but not religion — having the final authority to undo a religious rite through divorce or dissolution.

This would not be as serious an issue as a cross in a public park or the Ten Commandments in a court house if it were not for the problem of same-gender marriage. Condemned by many religions but endorsed by others, decisions by the state supreme court in Massachusetts and actions by the city of San Francisco in favor of same-gender marriage have generated a political movement to amend the U.S. Constitution to prohibit such marriages. This would implant within our nation's fundamental document of civil law a one-size-fits-all religious declaration, nullifying the positions of those religions that support same-gender marriages.

Rather than amend the Constitution, we need to end this entanglement. Marriage should be strictly a religious situation. Civil laws should neither define, regulate, nor even recognize marriage. Instead, the legal aspects of two persons in a committed relationship should be defined and regulated without reference to marriage, perhaps as domestic partnership even for mixed-gender couples. Just as government would not recognize marriage, no religion would be required to recognize domestic partnership. Just as in some European nations, a couple that wants both the religious and legal significance of what we know today as marriage would need separate religious and civil weddings.

For details about religious differences regarding same-gender marriage, see my Same-Gender Marriage?.
For a commentary by constitutional scholar Alan M. Dershowitz on this issue, see To Fix Gay Dilemma, Government Should Quit the Marriage Business.

19 November 2003
Updated 15 August 2006

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