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Church-State Separation
and the Aftermath of September 11:

Applying the Constitution in the Wake of the Terrorist Attacks

Americans United for Separation of Church and State
Washington, D.C.

The horrific terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11 have led to an increase in what many scholars call "civil religion"-- endorsements (usually fairly generic) of God and faith by political leaders and government officials. It is important to remember that our civil liberties are at great risk in times of crisis, and that we should therefore be more, rather than less, vigilant about protecting them from erosion in the coming weeks and months.

During these challenging times, Americans United would like to stress the following points:

The United States is a pluralistic society: Hundreds of religions are represented in America. Christian denominations constitute the majority, but even among these there is a great diversity of opinion on matters of theology and politics. Non-Christian faiths are well represented in America. In addition, millions of Americans do not believe in God at all, are agnostic or embrace humanistic principles. This diversity of thought and religion is one of our greatest assets.

Government officials must be sensitive to and, indeed, honor this reality. Government activities that promote one denomination over another or further specific religious practices are inappropriate. Government should strive for inclusion in all of its activities and never make any citizen feel like an outsider on account of religious belief or lack thereof.

Public schools must be especially sensitive to religious issues and flagrant violations of the law cannot be tolerated: The terrorist attack should not be used as an excuse to ignore Supreme Court rulings on religion in public education. Public schools serve children of an impressionable age. Since parents, and not school officials, bear the responsibility for the religious upbringing of children, schools must refrain from sponsoring religion or doing anything that coerces (even subtly) participation in religious activities. Activities like school-sponsored prayer, religious assemblies or the posting of the Ten Commandments remain inappropriate and unconstitutional. Such practices violate basic constitutional rights and should be vigorously opposed.

At the same time, it is important to note that many forms of student-sponsored prayer are permissible in public schools. While students may not impose prayers on a captive audience, they may engage in truly voluntary forms of religious expression. These include individual voluntary prayer and even group prayer or Bible study (in accordance with the Constitution and the federal Equal Access Act). These activities must be initiated and sponsored by students, not school officials or outside clergy. In addition, courts generally hold that individual students can wear shirts and buttons with religious or political sentiments.

School officials should foster unity rather than division. A practice that has proven divisive in a few communities is posting of the phrase "God Bless America" on school marquees. Courts have not addressed the legality of this practice. Rather than focus on narrow legal questions, it is more important to recognize that the introduction of school-sponsored declarations with any religious references are often controversial and that schools serving a diverse population will better serve families of all backgrounds with more inclusive statements such as "United We Stand."

If families have complained about a religiously oriented expression, even one that seems benign to most people, public school officials have an obligation to hear that complaint and address it. Ostracizing families who make these complaints or simply ignoring them is not acceptable.

Patriotic activities that contain religious references are not unconstitutional in public schools. Public schools may sponsor recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, but students who object may not be compelled to join in or be punished if they refuse. (Some individuals have religious and philosophical objections to reciting the pledge.) Thus, school officials may lead students in the pledge, as long as no one is compelled to participate. The same rules apply to the singing of patriotic songs that contain religious references. Such songs may be sung in public schools, but students who do not want to participate, for whatever reason, should be excused with no sanctions placed against them.

State and local governments have more leeway than public schools, but must still remain sensitive to religious diversity. The Supreme Court and lower federal courts have permitted some government bodies such as city and county councils and state governments to engage in some types of activities that remain forbidden in public schools. For example, state and local governments may in some cases include nonsectarian prayers at legislative meetings or engage in other forms of "civil religion." Whether they ought to do so is another question. Government officials should remain aware of the fact that they represent people of many different religious and philosophical points of view and should avoid even the appearance of favoritism in religious matters.

Local government officials also need to be aware that there are court decisions declaring some forms of "civil religion" unconstitutional -- especially practices that appear to promote specific types of religion. For example, in November of 1998, a federal court in Arizona blocked a "Bible Week" proclamation in the town of Gilbert, holding that the government action had a religious purpose. In March of 1999, a federal appeals court struck down the Cleveland Board of Education's practice of opening its sessions with overtly Christian prayers. And in 1996, a court in Illinois struck down a courthouse sign reading, "The World Needs God."

In addition, several federal courts have struck down government display of the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are a religious document, not a patriotic one, and the government may not promote their display.

There is no "natural" reaction to recent events. Government officials should refrain from asserting that prayer and religious worship are somehow the natural, logical or expected reaction to recent events. For many Americans, increased attention to religion is a natural reaction to a crisis such as this. However, other Americans may take a different view. It is inappropriate for government officials to assume that the former reaction is correct and that those who pursue the latter course are somehow not patriotic or love their country less.

At a time when our nation is seeking unity, it is important that government not sponsor religious messages or activities that may be divisive and make some citizens feel like second-class citizens.

This is the time to reaffirm our commitment to church-state separation, not turn our backs on it. On Sept. 11, our nation was attacked by terrorists who dislike America in part for its official policy of government neutrality toward religion. These terrorists come from nations where there is no separation of religion and state. They want a theocracy where one faith is mandated by the government. It would be highly ironic if our response to this threat was to lower our own wall of separation between church and state. Rather, we should reaffirm the importance of that wall in safeguarding the principle of religious freedom and the incredible religious diversity it gives us.

The wall of separation has given the United States more individual freedom, religious diversity and interfaith peace than any nation in world history. At this time of crisis, that diversity is a source of great strength, not a weakness. We as a nation should not hesitate to protect that wall from attack.

Released by Americans United for Separation of Church and State - October 24, 2001

Published in In Motion Magazine - November 6, 2001.