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Atheists, Theists and the Establishment Clause


The First Amendment doesn't say what opponents of religion think it says.

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Clint Dempsey, U.S. soccer star, received a lot of attention for both his footwork and his faith on the World Cup field. Devoted and ideologically aligned fans cheer on Dempsey and other Christian stars such as Tim Tebow and Phil Robertson, which is unusual.

I’m not questioning why these God-focused fans speak out in favor of their idols’ beliefs, but why they fall silent when the First Amendment comes under fire. One such issue is the push to remove God from the Pledge of Allegiance, and our currency.

The "Freedom From Religion Foundation," argues that the Constitution forbids all government actions that unduly favor one religion over another, or prefer religion to non-religion.

FFRF has misread the constitution: Freedom from religion is not a constitutional right. The First Amendment says, plain and simple:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

In other terms, government cannot set a state religion or discriminate against those who don’t practice a religion. The FRRF is correct about that much. However, the government also can’t stop you from talking about or practicing your religion. It certainly can’t remove all semblance of religion from the public sphere, so that those who are offended by religion never have to see or think about it. That would prohibit free exercise.

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The push for freedom from religion is especially ludicrous when you take into account the fact that 77 percent of Americans identify as Christian, and only 2.4 percent as atheist. And not all atheists are bothered by religion either: many point to a smaller culture of anti-theism, that seeks to dismantle religion altogether.

So how does such a microscopically small group make so much noise about an issue where they are a blatantly outnumbered?

They used the Establishment Clause to wrestle control of the microphone, and most religious Americans don’t realize that the Establishment Clause actually protects them from this exact situation.

God is certainly a religious topic, and currency and the Pledge are both state-related things. However, the FFRF ignores a critical part of the Establishment Clause in their argument: It prohibits the government from promoting non-religion over religion, and maintains that the government can make laws that affect religion as long as the main purpose of the legislation is secular.

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Here is an example:

In 1954, all non-for-profit charity organizations were given tax-exempt status, including churches. This did not sit well with one Fredrick Waltz, who sued the Tax Commission of New York City. In 1969, Waltz argued that by not taxing churches, the government was favoring religion. The Supreme Court disagreed, and upheld their decision two years later in the Lemon v. Kurtzman case. The justices’ rationale was that the tax-exempt status was for all charity organizations, and that any influence it had on the church was secondary.

In other words, a law that has a religious side effect, so to speak, is still okay. As it turns out, having God in the Pledge and on our money actually is a consequence of secular policy.

Eisenhower added, “One nation, under God,” to the Pledge of Allegiance during the Cold War after Soviet Russia's unilateral ban on all religion. This phrase was an expansion of our religious liberty, setting the United States apart as a country that would forever allow their citizens to practice the faith of their choosing.

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The addition of "In God We Trust," to our currency was implemented by Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, who wanted to make sure that if the nation fell apart during the Civil War, people would look back and see the United States as a country of religious freedom.

These policies didn’t promote one religion over another; they re-stated everyone’s First Amendment rights. But the FFRF’s push to remove God from the Pledge and our currency would show blatant government promotion of non-religion over religion.

If you still think this technicality might promote religion, consider this: Removing God from the Pledge and currency definitely promotes non-religion by striking down the concept of irrefutable religious liberty that the U.S. was trying to promote when it implemented these policies.

The Establishment Clause is on the side of religion here, not progressives. Armed with this information, it’s time for the crowd to get loud, and stop taking direction from a miniscule fraction of the population.

Just because atheists are in the minority doesn’t mean we need to give up our own rights to protect them. Throughout our history we’ve never been able to do right by the whole population. Look at the way the nation was divided on landmark civil rights issues:

  • 29 percent of the United States opposed abolition at the time of its implementation (not including states that didn’t secede from the union) but the dissenting opinion was hurting the liberties of the slaves.
  • 46 percent of the United States opposed women's suffrage at the time of its implementation, but the dissenting opinion was hurting the liberties of women.
  • 28 percent of the Eastern United States, 39 percent of the Midwest, 23 percent of the West, and 80 percent of the South all opposed desegregation of schools at the time of its implementation, but the dissenting – sometimes even overwhelming – opinion was hurting African Americans.


These are more than just statistics: millions of people were loosing their basic rights. In all these places, a sizable chunk of the population fought against liberty, and advocates of freedom were never silent.

But now, a fraction of 2.4 percent of the country is calling the shots when it comes to how Christians express their faith. That isn’t democracy looking out for the minority, that’s an oligarchy commanding the majority.

If abolitionists, suffragists and equal rights advocates had been silent to appease their counterparts, countless liberties we know today would have been lost.

Tolerance is a two-way street, and Christians need to speak out for their religious freedom – that is actually protected by the Establishment Clause, not the other way around – because only listening to the group who complains the loudest is a dangerous precedent.

Cole Ellenbogen is a student at Syracuse University. You can follow him on twitter @Cole_Ellenbogen, or contact him at Ellenbogencole@gmail.com

TheBlaze contributor channel supports an open discourse on a range of views. The opinions expressed in this channel are solely those of each individual author.

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