Thanks to Andrew Seidel’s book The Founding Myth, I have spent the last few weeks more perturbed than usual about the mixing of church and state. It’s always bothered me, but this book, and a few other factors, have started to really make me angry that the Constitution is so frequently broken by people who are trying to rewrite American history into something that it isn’t.
In addition to reading The Founding Myth, I also started watching The Family on Netflix, which is a documentary exposing the right-wing Christian group that puts on the annual National Prayer Breakfast and controls members of our government in even more nefarious ways.
Finally, as I was driving through my hometown last month, I saw that they had a nativity scene on the front lawn of their town hall.
I knew that this directly violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and (after reporting it to the FFRF) I wrote to the town to tell them so, writing in my politest tone:
Hello Sir or Ma’am,
I am afraid that I have observed a violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America in that there is a Christian nativity scene being depicted on the front lawn of the _ Borough Building.
If you were not aware, this violates the First Amendment because it is promoting one specific religion on government property. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment states,
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” the first half of which your display is violating.
I am informing you that this violation has been reported to the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and I sincerely hope that you will reconsider displaying the Christian nativity on government property.
They responded the next morning, saying,
Hi Rebekah, there is a crèche outside the front of the building that covers all denominations.
To this, I said,
Thank you so much for getting back to me in a timely manner. It means a lot that you’ve taken the time to respond during this busy season.
Unfortunately, I’m afraid I don’t understand what you mean in that the crèche covers all denominations. Absolutely, it does cover all denominations of New Testament Christianity, but in our American nation and even within our own small town, citizens of many different non-Christian religions and even non-religious beliefs are present.
In what way will you equally accommodate for our town’s Jews and Muslims, and even atheists and Satanists?
For more information, I recommend perusing what qualifies a crèche as a violation of the Establishment Clause here: https://ffrf.org/outreach/item/14019-religious-holiday-displays-on-public-property. Additionally, I would hope that I don’t have to get the Pittsburgh Freethought Community involved in addition to the Freedom from Religion Foundation.
They never responded again. There were a few things that invalidated my feeble attempt at equality, some of which I knew at the time and some of which I didn’t. For one thing, I don’t live there anymore. It was a coincidence that I was driving past that location at all, and I haven’t been back since. Secondly, I first saw it on December 19th, and it was probably about to be taken down shortly after anyways. I’m very grateful that an FFRF representative recently got back to me, but I don’t think I will pursue this exact fight, especially since I wouldn’t be frequently making the drive back to that town to speak to people or check whether or not it’s still there. Instead, I will check by the town hall of my new town come Christmas 2020, which seems more worthwhile.
What I didn’t know as I sent these emails was that showing this crèche on the town hall lawn didn’t directly violate the Establishment Clause at its face. Over Christmas, as we were talking about The Founding Myth, my brother-in-law brought to my attention the fact that when the First Amendment says only “Congress shall make no law,” it really only means that Congress shall make no law. I had the unfortunate revelation that my hometown’s borough building isn’t Congress, and erecting a crèche isn’t making a law.
Fortunately, in the case of me not looking like a complete idiot, I still believe that what my hometown did was unconstitutional. This is due to my perusal of the FFRF page I shared with the representative in my email, which lists seven questions that you have to ask yourself about a religious display in order to actually determine whether or not it is Constitutional. A lot of these factors have been clarified through various court cases throughout the years—even one right here in Pittsburgh—but I’ll let you peruse that page on your own.
When I left the town-hall-nativity issue behind, other gears really started turning for me. As my brother-in-law had pointed out, when the First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law,” the only entity not allowed to make a law is Congress. Congress isn’t states. States, then, can determine their own laws “respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
I’m not a political scientist by a long shot, and I know that states do still have to abide by some level of separation between religion and government, but I don’t explicitly know how it is enforced. Out of curiosity, I started looking up what state constitutions say, and what I found shocked me, both in how unwelcome I suddenly felt in my own state and how in my twenty-four years I had never known that Pennsylvania’s state constitution says this. My state’s constitutions references to god or religion are as follows:
WE, the people of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, grateful to Almighty God for the blessings of civil and religious liberty, and humbly invoking His guidance, do ordain and establish this Constitution.
§ 3. Religious freedom.
All men have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences; no man can of right be compelled to attend, erect or support any place of worship, or to maintain any ministry against his consent; no human authority can, in any case whatever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience, and no preference shall ever be given by law to any religious establishments or modes of worship.
§ 4. Religion.
No person who acknowledges the being of a God and a future state of rewards and punishments shall, on account of his religious sentiments, be disqualified to hold any office or place of trust or profit under this Commonwealth.
Parts of this may look depressing to me and my fellow PA atheists, but it could be much worse. Yes, it’s very annoying that it makes the assumption that all the people of Pennsylvania are “grateful to Almighty God” and “humbly invoking His guidance” when we very clearly are not. But to me, this is just rhetoric, and if it is somehow affecting my rights and freedom (other than not representing my view), then I don’t know about it.
Section 3 on religious freedom actually seems like it favors every citizen regardless of their beliefs. Section 4 is, of course, a bit more questionable, but I’ve learned not to infer from a constitution anything more than what is explicitly stated. If I’m interpreting it correctly, Section 4 is saying that no one who believes in god, heaven, or hell is automatically disqualified from holding office in PA. It doesn’t look to me like this is saying with certainty that nonbelievers can’t run, only that believers surely can. Maybe it’s still unequal and should just say that no one’s religious beliefs or lack thereof would prohibit them from holding office.
Frustratingly, there are still other states whose constitutions do prohibit nonbelievers from holding office: Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. Thanks to Roy Torcaso and Herb Silverman, the statutes for Maryland and South Carolina, respectively, have been explicitly struck down by federal courts due to violating the Establishment and No Religious Test Clauses.
If you live in one of the remaining states and you don’t believe in god, I dare you to run for office so that you, too, can be the reason why the states can no longer discriminate against atheists. It’s up to us to hold state governments accountable for what is right, even if it goes against their constitutions.