Religion and the courts

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;… —The religion clauses of the first amendment

A law violates the first amendment if it fails any of the following three tests: 1) it must serve a secular purpose; 2) it must neither advance nor inhibit religion; 3) it must not excessively entangle government in religion. —The Lemon Test, Lemon v. Kurtzman, 1971

mosesOnce again, the Supreme Court is trying to find its way through a minefield, and no matter what it does, it will surely set off an explosion. The court heard arguments today concerning the display of the Ten Commandments in government buildings. It did so, ironically, beneath a mural depicting Moses holding the Ten Commandments, standing in the company of other famous law-givers. Justice Scalia, noting the irony, reminded the others that every session of the court is opened with the declaration “God save this honorable court.”

It seems certain that our country’s founders did not intend for the first amendment to create a secular government. But part of the trouble is that the founders left very little behind that explains why they wrote what they did, and the centuries have not created a single interpretation that satisfies everyone. You can find a well-written article on the first amendment here.

Times have changed. Today, egalitarianism and individuality are probably more important cultural values than faith, and I think it does Christianity harm to endorse laws and policies that seem to shove belief down the throats of the unwilling. I like what law professor Marci Hamilton has to say:

…the most reviled minority in America is characterized neither by race nor sex nor religion, but rather by a lack of religious belief. When nonbelievers challenge government-backed religious messages, they are typically treated with contempt and often face threats and harassment as well. … This is an unfortunate example of the intolerance of a majority whose members ought to know better. —Marci Hamilton, The Ten Commandments in Court: Power and its Abuse

Jesus never failed to assert himself as the Giver of Truth. At the same time, he never demanded faith. He never coerced or arm-twisted anyone into believing. In our zealousness for God, we need to be careful that we ourselves don’t become a stumbling block to faith.

By insisting that our government acknowledge God, we have good intentions. But I suspect that we are doing the cause of faith more harm than good in the process.

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