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PA Christians continue to flout the law

A lot of people have a fundamental misconception about the First Amendment, stemming from the phrase “church and state”—they think that as long as you don’t favor any particular individual church, you can establish religion as much as you want. Even if you’re a state legislator.

At least two recent Pennsylvania House of Representatives sessions have opened with sectarian Christian prayers — those exclusive to Christianity as opposed to general prayers — despite many surrounding legal issues and scrutiny from at least one prominent national organization concerned with the mixing of religion and government

The First Amendment states that Congress (and by extension the states as well) shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. As individual citizens, of course, state lawmakers are perfectly free to pray as much or as little as they like to whoever or whatever they like. In their capacity as lawmakers, however, they are prohibited from exploiting their position of power for the purpose of establishing religion. It’s not a hard point to grasp, and in fact I don’t think it’s any lack of understanding that prevents them from keeping their behavior within the bounds of law. It’s simply that they do not respect the law itself.

This is not because they are bad or wicked people. It’s the nature of their religion: their faith requires that they have no respect for any law that interferes with the goal of establishing the supremacy of the Christian faith, by any means necessary. To do less, to allow the laws of men to take precedence over the preaching of the Gospel, is to give the law power over God. And they can’t have that.

This is why it’s important for us to do what we can to help spread the good news of atheism, and set people free from their ancient and primitive superstitions. Those who are not free, who are still bound by the dogmas and intolerance of the past, cannot help but put their own personal religious beliefs above the law, even when they’re the ones making the law. Our only defense against theocracy is to spread unbelief, and thereby deprive our irrational and superstitious leaders of the basis for their political power.

Comments

  1. Kurt Horner says

    While I agree with your logic that even generic prayers should be construed as a violation of the Establishment Clause, the courts have ruled otherwise. The current standard on invocations is that they *can* occur as long as the process by which speakers are chosen is fair and open to all and as long as the speech does not promote or disparage any particular faith. So the article is correct that the PA invocations appear to cross the line (by promoting a particular faith) and also correct that generically religious invocations are (currently) permissible.

  2. Bob says

    There is another choice for our actions. That is to not elect those who in any way express their willingness to allow any religious practice, belief or article of faith to be codified in law. And to not elect any President who will select Supreme Court Justices who will allow such violations of the separation of church and state.

  3. StandTogether says

    “Those who are not free, who are still bound by the dogmas and intolerance of the past, cannot help but put their own personal religious beliefs above the law, even when they’re the ones making the law.” — False. Not every religious politician is a fascist zealot. Ex: Gabby Giffords.

    “Our only defense against theocracy is to spread unbelief, and thereby deprive our irrational and superstitious leaders of the basis for their political power.” — False! Our *only* defense against a theocracy is the US constitution. It seems as though the theists/deists who drafted our rights were unlike the people you are complaining about in modern day. =) Keep in mind that you will have allies in those communities as well.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      Ok, I’ll grant you there are laudable exceptions like Giffords. I must point out, though, that the Constitution is only a defense to the extent that people uphold it. When you have all 3 branches of government agreeing that it’s ok for the president to spy on US citizens without a warrant, to arrest and torture them without due process, and even to execute them without a trial, then the Constitution ends up being “just a goddamn piece of paper.”

    • F says

      …cannot help but put their own personal religious beliefs above the law, even when they’re the ones making the law.

      Fascist zealotry is hardly required. Simply the unthinking acceptance of religious themes in government.

  4. Jet says

    I may be wrong, but it seems to me in my Canadian ignorance that the Constitution says only ‘establish no LAW’ promoting a religion. Doesn’t that ignore things like saying a prayer of the majority in legal forums like a courtroom etc? They’re not making it a legal REQUIREMENT, just saying a prayer. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to combat it?
    Or am I totally off base.

    • Robert B. says

      Since the constitution was written, courts have basically decided that over-focusing on the word “law” like that is to use technicalities to evade the intent of the Constitution. (Also, a later amendment broadened the bill of rights to apply to other government bodies, not just the US Congress.) In practice, the government is forbidden from using its power/authority/position to promote a religion, whether or not they pass an actual law. Of course, there are precedents establishing some, in my layman’s opinion, stupid exceptions, like permitting “nonsectarian” prayer at government functions (as though prayer were a feature of every belief system) and allowing theistic language on the money and in the Pledge of Allegiance as “ceremonial deism” (there’s no point “trusting in” a deistic God, nor can a nation be “under” it, since it does not intervene or exert authority.)

  5. Steve says

    The idea of “non-sectarian prayer” is laughably absurd. Usually it just means they don’t say “In Jesus’s name” and then when no one else looking the grin and wink and say “Of course we pray for Jesus”. Prayer is prayer. It doesn’t matter how it is worded. Any kind of prayer should be frowned upon in such a setting.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      Yeah, “non-sectarian prayer” is like a love letter addressed to “Occupant”. If you’re not talking to any particular person, why say anything?

      • says

        Yeah, “non-sectarian prayer” is like a love letter addressed to “Occupant”. If you’re not talking to any particular person, why say anything?

        I think that this analogy wins the Internet for the day. I plan to spread this quote far and wide — with attribution, of course.

        ~David D.G.

  6. Brian F says

    I have argued this many times, this is my standard response.

    The 1st Amendment says; “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..” It does NOT say; “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of “of a religion”, “of a specific religion” or “of a state religion”; It says “of religion”, all religion, any religion. Which means the government will maintain a neutral posture on all religious matters, the American government will not take the side any one religion over another or religion over non-religion. You don’t have to do a whole lot of interpreting unless you what to pretend it says something other than what it does.

    • mikespeir says

      But we’re dealing with people who’ve had a lot of practice milking the “correct” interpretations out of texts. Don’t underestimate their creativity.

  7. says

    I once worked for a state legislator who had to deal with a constituent who was eager to get him to introduce a bill establishing a State Department of Religion. When he mildly pointed out the First Amendment problem, his constituent was undeterred. “That’s okay,” she said. “My proposed department would support all religions!” How nice.

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