By Andrew L. Seidel
Freedom From Religion Foundation
U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah took to the senate floor on Nov. 4 to warn colleagues about a “coordinated assault” on religious freedom, specifically attacking the phrase alluded to in the banner of this blog: the wall of separation between church and state. Hatch is not a fan of that wall, but it might be because he has no idea what it does:
The Court’s flawed wall-of-separation jurisprudence has kept religion out of the public square and fed the idea that religion is a private matter to be practiced within the confines of one’s church or home.
Let me stop you right there, Orrin. No, it hasn’t. The wall of separation does nothing to religion in “the public square.” The wall of separation keeps religion out of government and government out of religion. For instance, if a citizen wants to pray in a public park, they are free to genuflect to whichever god they wish. But the wall of separation prevents the government allowing or erecting a religious display, a cross, for instance, in that public park. Religion may not stake a claim on land that belongs to We the People.
The distinction between government action and the actions of private citizens is not difficult to understand. A private citizen can exercise his or her personal religion wherever, including in public; but government officials cannot abuse their position of power and government office to promote their personal religion.
Hatch seems to miss, or perhaps to deliberately complicate, this easy distinction. He continues:
The Court’s flawed wall-of-separation jurisprudence has kept religion out of the public square and fed the idea that religion is a private matter to be practiced within the confines of one’s church or home. Legal and social pressure have taken their toll, and the results are stark: No prayer in school; No new Ten Commandments displays — or even Christmas or Hanukkah displays — unless carefully secularized; A widespread prejudice in many quarters against public officials talking about God or about their beliefs in public; And even the crusade every December to replace the phrase Merry Christmas with Happy Holidays…
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No. No. No. The wall of separation has never prevented a student from praying if he or she wishes. The wall prevents the school and the school’s employees from organizing, scheduling, or imposing prayer on those students. Those employees remain free to pray on their own time, but they don’t get to use their government position to impose, suggest, recommend, or model prayer for other people’s children.
Ten Commandments displays are allowed, just not on government property. The wall does not let religions claim land and buildings that belong to us all for one god. Any display that begins “I am the LORD your God, you shall have no other gods before me,” as Ten Commandments displays do, breaches that wall. The displays are allowed anywhere else, churches for instance. The same is true of those devotional holiday displays.
The “widespread prejudice … against public officials talking about God or about their beliefs in public,” if it even exists, has nothing to do with the wall. If Hatch means that the Constitution prevents officials from using their office to promote their personal religion, then we agree. If he means people are prejudiced against officials discussing religion generally, I can only say that I wait eagerly for that day. If you want to talk religion, become a preacher. But you were elected to public office to do a job, so get off your knees and get to work.
As for the “crusade” to replace “Merry Christmas with Happy Holidays,” take it up with the companies that wish to be more inclusive and move more product.
Hatch’s 21-minute rant is excruciating. It’s chock-a-block full of buzz words and consistently conflates religious privilege with religious freedom. Even if Hatch had been talking about the genuine prohibitions the wall of separation mandates, he would still be missing the larger point. Organized Christian prayer in public schools, Ten Commandments displays on government property, and nativity scenes on government property are all artifacts. Many are extinct and rightfully so, but some are still with us. These are the lasts gasps of a dying age. When we look back on this time 50 years from now, it will be notable because now marks the end of Christian privilege in this country.
But the narrative Hatch is selling—that religion is being driven behind closed doors as opposed to out of the government where the Constitution says it does not belong—is completely untrue. The Religious Right has been forced to erect a straw man, this fabrication, because its other arguments are failing. The noise from Hatch and groups like Liberty Counsel and Liberty Institute is simply Christians raging against the dying of their privilege. Yes, there is still a lot of clean up to do and many more state-church battles to fight, but every day it becomes clearer that secularism is winning.
FFRF is a national nonprofit dedicated to keeping state and church separate and educating about nontheism. For more information and a copy of our paper, Freethought Today, please click here.