The exploration of religious roots in U.S. law
You can practice Christianity. You can practice Buddhism. You can even make up your own religion if you really want to. In the United States, you legally have the freedom to choose whether or not to participate in religious practices in every aspect of your life. But when it comes to the elements of Christianity in certain aspects of American law and tradition, just try not to complain too loudly…
Take the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court case of Town of Greece v. Galloway, for example. Originating in the nearby city of Rochester, the suit, which was filed by townspeople Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, claims that the prayers conducted in town meetings are in violation of the First Amendment’s ban on the establishment of religion. Simply put, Galloway and Stephen argue that they don’t want to walk into a town council meeting and be coerced to participate in prayer. Rather, they preferred an environment that is tolerant of opening prayers but does not cause offense if the practice is not participated in.
The Supreme Court thought differently. Judges typically weigh lawsuits about prayer in political or official settings on whether or not the prayer is an endorsement of the faith — known as the Establishment Clause. In this case, they thought the council leaders were simply conducting a religious practice and weren’t trying to impose their faith on anyone else. Without eliminating legislative prayer altogether, the justices couldn’t find a reason to stop the town leaders’ actions that wouldn’t infringe on their own First Amendment rights.
This leaves two groups of people: people who feel like they are getting coerced to practice a faith they don’t believe in and people who feel they should be able to participate in a religious tradition they all believe in.
The problem with bringing this case to court is that the tricky decision is not based on who matters more, but rather, what. Theology and U.S. laws have a funny way of mixing their vibrant colors into a fascinating shade of grey.
Don McLeroy, who became a household name in 2012 when he openly challenged the evidence behind evolution in high school textbooks, sat on the Texas State Board of Education for 13 years. As a religious conservative in the public eye, he provided a voice for some of the 28 percent of Americans who identify themselves as religious conservatives (Public Religion Research Institute). McLeroy acknowledges that “no establishment of religion” and “free exercise” in the First Amendment includes all beliefs. However, his concern about lawsuits like Greece v. Galloway is that Modern Liberals are trying to end the practices of any religion in public for fear of offending people.
“Modern Liberalism is now being de facto established as our state religion and this poses a great threat to our religious liberty,” McLeroy said. “This is because the Modern Liberal state is denying people’s free exercise of their religious beliefs.”
McLeroy, like many religious conservatives, is worried that the intention of the Founders will be forgotten and that Americans are encouraged to use their “free exercise” of religion only behind closed doors.
Pastor Robert Vincent Sr. of Grace Presbyterian in Louisiana has written articles and blog posts which contain echoes of McLeroys sentiment as well as ideas about what the founders meant when they created the Constitution.
“While they did not want a state church, they, nevertheless, assumed that Christian principles regarding liberty of conscience, checks and balances in government, punishments not being excessively harsh or unjust, and, most importantly, a Christian understanding of the Ten Commandments would help guide the republic in framing its laws,” Vincent said.
It is this belief in a “Moral Law of God” that causes most of the confusion when trying to figure out whether or not the Founders wanted religion practiced within U.S. laws. Vincent’s past studies have led him to conclude that even though the majority of them were Christians and did not believe in religious coercion, they did think that a just society reflects Moral Law.
McLeroy and Vincent’s statements bring up an interesting debate. When the Supreme Court decides cases that borderline on endorsement of religion, it will almost always end up looking at the degree of which the topic might cause uproar. For Galloway and Stephens, they had to face the fact that they were the only ones to legally contest prayer in Greece council meetings since the tradition began. That was good enough for the judges.
Kristen Mansfield is a junior journalism major who thinks God and Government have become a little too friendly. Email her at kmansfi1[at]ithaca.edu.