The First Amendment to the United States Constitution states, in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . .” These two clauses, the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause, respectively, are viewed by most as a reaction to both the establishment of the Church of England as that nation’s official religion and centuries of religious persecution throughout Europe. In fact, many of the original settlers came to America to avoid religious persecution. They simply wanted to be free to practice their own religion.
The Establishment Clause has been a hot topic, especially in the last half-century. Professor Esenberg has written about the ambitious nature of Establishment Clause jurisprudence. I agree: it is very difficult to achieve the apparent goal of religious neutrality. Instead, we should look to the meaning behind religious displays (or a National Day of Prayer) that are religious in nature rather than simply look at the fact that they are symbols of a certain religion.
The meaning of religious displays should be the important factor rather than the fact that they are religious in nature.
For example there are several cases, such as Glassroth v. Moore, Van Orden v. Perry, and McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky, that deal with the public display of the Ten Commandments. On their face, these displays are clearly religious in nature and are on state property. No argument there. In Van Orden, a 5-4 Court held that the display was legal because of the monument’s secular purpose. However, in McCreary County, the Court found the display illegal (5-4) because it was not clearly integrated with a secular display. This seems to be where courts draw the line.
Now let’s look at the meaning of the displays. The Ten Commandments include such ideas as loving your father and mother, refraining from murder or theft, and not bearing false witness against your neighbor. It would be hard to imagine a person who is offended by these ideas regardless of religion. [Full disclosure: I am Catholic.] Sure, there are references to God and worship of God, and some will argue that the state is trying to establish a religion. However, if there was a Buddhist display promoting love and decrying evil, while still being pro-Buddhist, I would not be offended and cannot see why anyone else would. It in no way impedes the practice of my religion of choice. It is hardly the government “endorsing” Buddhism. Rather, the display simply shows values that nearly everyone finds good and desirable.
Historically, the Establishment Clause was established to help ensure that the citizens of the United States are free to practice whatever religion they want without the government favoring the practice of one religion over another. These displays hardly demonstrate the government’s stance on a preferred religion. They simply show ideals that are viewed positively by society as a whole. Some may say that this is just the first step leading to a “slippery slope.” I disagree. So long as everyone is free to practice the religion of their choice, who can be truly harmed by the display of positive values?