First, regarding the law.
Unless you are a legal scholar, it seems wise to simply trust the decisions of the US Supreme Court as regards questions of law and the Constitution. Here’s what the Supreme Court has to say about the separation of church and state:
- The government’s action must have a legitimate secular purpose;
- The government’s action must not have the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion;
- The government’s action must not result in an “excessive government entanglement” with religion.
(see Lemon v. Kurtzman )
This is what separation of church and state means in America.
It takes a legal scholar to interpret the Establishment Clause . However the question isn’t really about what the law does say: it’s about what the law should say, and anyone is qualified to voice his/her opinions on that :)
I interpret two possible intentions in this question, “Why do atheists oppose government action which involves religion?”, and “Why do atheists oppose religion?”. The second question is vague, and there are many answers here within this website, so I’ll address the first question.
The more a government involves a certain religion in its policies, the more it alienates its citizens who do not follow that religion. As the government promotes Christianity, non-Christians (and non-religious Christians) become second class citizens.
Take the issue of welfare services provided by Christian, church-based institutions. These institutions do a lot of good. However, it only stands to reason that non-Christians will be less likely to avail themselves of these services. (One reason is that many such services are accompanied by proselytizing; another is that many of the service providers are at least somewhat likely to rebuke or even deny service to non-believers.) So when the government diverts its social aid budget away from secular programs to “faith-based initiatives”, it is effectively promoting the welfare of Christians over non-Christians.
While the preceding argument regards the benefits of services provided by the government, this is only the most obvious form of discrimination to result from government involvement with religion. If a government enacts laws that empower a particular church or conspicuously enacts its principles, then the government is implicitly favoring the followers of that religion. This has far-reaching impacts beyond the scope of social aid. It damages the social and political landscape of the country in a variety of ways.
Some Christians in this country write about a war on Christianity, which is how they perceive the effort to enforce the separation of church and state. However misguided I believe this to be, one can easily see that non-Christian groups would react similarly if the government started promoting Christian causes. This kind of conflict weakens the country and should be avoided.
Posted: June 20th 2007
See all questions answered by George Locke