Just this week we heard the story of the Ed Young Senior Citizens Center in Georgia, where elderly residents were told that they should not pray audibly before meals. Why? Joshua Rhett Miller at Fox News explains, writing:
Officials from Senior Citizens Inc., which operates the senior center, have said the meals they provide to visitors are mostly covered with federal money — so saying a communal prayer before chowing down is a violation of federal regulations.
"We can't scoff at their rules," Tim Rutherford, Senior Citizens Inc.'s vice president, told the Associated Press. "It's part of the operational guidelines."
While I certainly can scoff, I can’t say I’m surprised. This is just another in a long line of Establishment Clause misapplications that have yielded truly bizarre prohibitions. And let’s explore how we got to our present point.
For approximately the first 150 years of our history, Uncle Sam didn’t establish religion. It also didn’t establish irreligion, despite the fact that state and local governments were infused with religious symbols and sentiments. For instance, at the time the Constitution was written, many states had established churches, and the Bible was often taught in schools. In fact, Congress itself opened with prayers, and still does; and when Supreme Court justices enter the courtroom, a marshal shouts, “God save the United States and this Honorable Court” (I’m glad these bodies get no federal funding).
Now we come to a question: Since the First Amendment prohibits the establishment of religion, how could states have established churches? The answer lies in what the amendment actually says: “Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof [emphasis mine].” It says “Congress,” not government, because the founders only meant it to restrict one level of government: the central one. They fully intended for states to be able to legislate in this area as they saw fit.
Starting in the late 19th century, however, the courts conjured up a rationalization called the “Theory of Incorporation,” which, based on the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, is how jurists have applied certain provisions of the Bill of Rights to the states. Then, 1947 gave us the separation-of-church-and-state ruling, despite the fact that the phrase is nowhere to be found in the Constitution; and the prohibition against school prayer followed 15 years later. Since that time, restrictions on religious expression have metastasized, becoming increasingly bizarre with each passing decade. We have seen school Christmas break renamed “Winter Break” and Christmas trees dubbed “Holiday Trees,” and at least one school changed the lyrics “Silent night, holy night” to “Cold in the night.” We have seen localities sued for having longstanding religious symbols on public property; an example would be a 1990 lower-court ruling that Zion, Illinois, had to remove the cross from its flag.
And the rationale behind this thinking is as convoluted as the rulings are inconsistent. In one case of a cross, a court observed that its presence “creates an inference of official endorsement of the general religious beliefs which underlie that symbol.” Wow, the Constitution exists to protect us from inferences now? Can Second Amendment rights be squelched because the presence of guns might create an inference (in some minds) of a desire to overthrow the government?
Yet other jurists have upheld the practice of placing crosses on public property, with one court stating that a cross could remain because it was there to “decorate streets and attract holiday shoppers to downtown, rather than establish or create a religious symbol or to promote or establish a religion.” In many other cases, the courts rule that the religious symbols may remain because they are “historical” and not religious.
So in grand situational-values style, it all varies from Black Robe to Black robe and place to place. In the recent Mojave Cross case, the Supreme Court allowed the cross to remain, but 4 justices dissented, and, overall, 44 percent of the judges involved in the case took their position. What will they say in 10 years?
And, of course, the high court hasn’t ruled Congress’ opening prayers — or its own mention of God — unconstitutional. But, no matter. It’s much as with commissars who would let the common folks stand on bread lines for two hours (according to their needs, ya’ know?) but still enjoy the perks of power. We can’t expect august bodies such as the Congress and Court to relinquish their traditions, can we?
Now, it may seem that there’s no rhyme or reason to any of this, but there is a definite pattern. Is it any coincidence that these changing interpretations of unchanging text have precisely corresponded to social change? And, given this, does anyone really think they are driven by the letter and spirit of the law and not the spirit of the age?
Put plainly, as society becomes more secular, courts’ rulings increasingly favor secularism. But here’s the thing about patterns: They don’t change unless their underlying cause, the disease, is treated. Thus, as long as secularism expands, religious freedom will shrink.
So what lies in the future? Well, we already have “devout” separation-of-church-and-staters who want our national motto, “In God We Trust,” removed from our currency, but that’s just the beginning. If some people believe that senior citizens should not be allowed to pray audibly before dining when their meals are largely government funded, what should they say about those receiving food stamps? Why should they be allowed to say grace?
Then, should people be allowed to proselytize on public streets built and maintained with government money? In fact, I can foresee a time when the receipt of any kind of government funding or assistance, or the use of government property, will be a justification for squelching freedom of religion.
Yet it could go even further. Perhaps we’ll see a day when those receiving benefits (e.g., Social Security) won’t be allowed to attend church because their lifestyle is facilitated by state money. Or perhaps people of faith won’t be allowed to run for office or even vote; after all, since their faith informs their world view, it would be a case of religion influencing government. You may scoff, but remember that we have already heard people complain that politicians shouldn’t let their faith influence their politics. (This, of course, is misguided. A person’s politics don’t emerge in a vacuum; it is a reflection of his world view. And it’s a strange form of prejudice to say that a politician can be influenced by a humanistic world view but not a Catholic one.)
Are my predictions ridiculous? Well, if you had told people in the 1950s that the separation-of-church-and-state principle would one day strike Christmas trees, Easter Break, “holy night,” crosses and Nativity scenes from the public sphere, they would have called you crazy. “It exists simply to protect people’s rights,” they’d have said.
Without a belief in Absolute Truth, there can be no belief in unchanging principles. This is why atheists, as a group, operate based on emotion, on what feels right and is convenient at the moment. This also explains why court rulings on the Establishment Clause are all over the map. Thus, as long as secularism continues to feel increasingly right, religious expression will be increasingly squelched.
Make no mistake, if we don’t change this pattern, it will change us. And as communist governments proved in the last century, there are few points beyond which atheistic states will not go.
Selwyn Duke is a columnist and public speaker whose work has been published widely online and in print, on both the local and national levels. He has been featured on the Rush Limbaugh Show, at WorldNetDaily.com, in American Conservative magazine, is a contributor to AmericanThinker.com and appears regularly as a guest on the award-winning, nationally-syndicated Michael Savage Show. Visit his Website.