March 10, 2006

ACLU Pres. Takes On Religion

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Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), spoke on the role of religion in American government yesterday at an event sponsored by the Cornell ACLU and numerous other organizations.

“The familiar but completely false charge,” Strossen began, “[is] that the ACLU and the Supreme Court have driven religion out of the public square, and correspondingly, that the Constitution’s non-establishment clause, and those of us who enforce it, are somehow hostile to religion. In fact though, nothing could be further from the truth.”

Strossen argued that the separation of church and state, or a government “neutrality principle” with regard to religion, was not hostile at all and instead very beneficial to religion.

According to Strossen, “A good starting point for the true story of the role of religion in our system of government is the Constitution itself.”

Citing the book The Godless Constitution by Cornell Professors Isaac Kramnick and Laurence Moore, Strossen said, “The deliberate decision that the framers of our Constitution made [was] to exclude any endorsement of either Christianity in particular or organized religion in general.”

Kramnick and Moore rebutted charges of indifference or hostility toward religion by writing, “The creation of a godless constitution was not, as critics charged, an act of irreverence; rather, it was an act of confidence in religion. It reflects the American system of voluntary support of religious institutions, which has proved to be a much greater boom to organized religion than the prior systems of government establishment ever were.”

Strossen elaborated on how the Constitution advocated a position of neutrality with respect to religion. She said the only reference to religion in the constitution itself is a ban on religious tests for government positions, claiming this article afforded, “all individuals an equal right to believe whatever they choose concerning religion, and that they all have equal standing in our political system, regardless of there beliefs.”

The First Amendment furthered this position of neutrality, stating, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” To better explain how to apply this rule, Strossen used the examples of constitutional and unconstitutional activities relating to the public school system.

Strossen explained that comparative studies of religion were acceptable, as they neither favored nor disfavored religion. As long as teachers “educated, not indoctrinated,” these studies were with legal under the constitution.

Strossen also used student associations as an example of an activity protected under the First Amendment. If students were permitted to form non-religious student associations, then the formation of religious associates must be permissible as well.

Teachers, however, face more restrictions, according to Strossen, as they are government employees. They may express their religious beliefs, but not when assuming the role of teacher, as their position gives them the authority of the government.

In general, Strossen believed the constitution prohibits religious expression by the government, while protecting religious expression by individuals. Complexities arise because the expressions of those who work for the government are still protected as long as they are not assuming the authority of the government, as with the teacher example.

Strossen told how what constitutes respecting the establishment of religion was dependant on context as well, using examples of similar displays of the Ten Commandments. A Kentucky courthouse which displayed the Ten Commandments by themselves was found unconstitutional, but the Supreme Court, which displays them in the hands of Moses next to other religious and secular figures who made significant contributions to legal history was acceptable.

According to Strossen, many religious leaders are and have been supportive of the establishment clause. They do so both to protect the sanctity of religion from political abuse and to ensure the freedom of all to worship as they please. Strossen cited many past cases where the ACLU defended religious minorities, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses in flag salute cases. She also stated that more religious groups filed briefs in support of the ACLU, in favor of government neutrality towards religion, than against it in their legal cases.

Strossen then quoted Justice Harry Blackman ruling on school prayer case, as to why religious groups support the establishment clause, saying, “When the government favors a particular religion or sect, the disadvantage to all others is obvious, but even the favored religion may be tainted with a corrosive secularism. The favored religion may be compromised, as political figures reshape the religions beliefs for their own purposes.”

Strossen concluded her presentation by attributing the strength of religion in America to our government’s neutrality. She then fielded questions from the audience.

Mollie Elicker ’08, was impressed by Strossen.

“She’s a very well spoken women and clearly very knowledgeable,” Elicker said, “I think she made a lot of good points.”

Noah Spies ’06 agreed with Elicker, calling Strossen’s presentation amazing.

“I thought she was very well put together and coherent. I really appreciated how she took time to answer questions,” Spies said.

Everet Yi ’08, Cornell ACLU president, was very pleased with the event.

“It was shocking when I went up on stage and looked into the crowd,” Yi said with regard to the event’s attendance.

Archived article by Ross Anderson
Sun Contributor