“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;”
For such a seemingly simple concept, it’s astounding how much hullaballoo has been caused by this – not only by people who want to ignore it, but by people who want to take it to an extreme.
The First Amendment is very clear on the subject of religion. Congress cannot pass a law declaring a state religion (and, by extension, one tends to extend that to other governmental bodies). Neither can it pass a law prohibiting anybody from exercising their religion freely. The problem is that most people tend to ignore one half or the other. Right now, in the nearby city of Madison, the Freedom from Religion Foundation has begun a billboard campaign, trying to push people away from religion. They have every right to do so.
However, I take exception to their apparent belief that religious belief is harmful, and needs to be stopped. Religion is not inherently good, but neither is it inherently harmful, or evil. Faith has been used to justify travesties throughout history, yes. But, similarly, so has opposition to faith. Is it fair to call the Holocaust a crime motivated by overzealous faith, any more than it is to call it an attack on it? The Crusades?
I’ve been on both sides of the stick myself, as well. Going through high school, I was often looked askance at for my interest in alternate religions, growing up in a very religious city. At the same time, I’ve had people tell me that to believe in anything that’s beyond our current understanding of the world is an affront to science and a sign of sheer stupidity. Believing in magic and spirits, in particular, was a weakness rather than a sign of an open mind.
Of course, both sides have plenty of quotes and arguments they can trot out. Of course they do – there have been prominent thinkers who were atheists as surely as there have been ones who were deeply religious. Darwin and Einstein were religious. Da Vinci was religious. Mark Twain, not so much.
The problem, as is often the case, is binary thinking disease. You’re either for me, or against me. You’re either right, or you’re wrong. You’re either an atheist, or a religious zealot who thinks we should bring back stoning. You’re either for God, and going to heaven, or against him, and going to Hell.
Neither approach is the one laid out in the First Amendment. Neither approach fulfills the spirit of our law, or is truly free. The only approach that does, and that is true religious freedom, is the middle road. You are free to believe in God, Buddha, science, the Maid Mother and Crone, or whoever you will. You are free to display whatever you want on your lawn – or at your city hall, for that matter – at holidays, just as long as you don’t make it a matter of law. Don’t force people to believe what you’re putting up, and go ahead and let people who believe otherwise put their own displays up.
And then don’t go vandalizing the displays.
Green Bay tried that a few years ago; unfortunately, some assholes decided to vandalize the displays, because they didn’t want to see them. The city actually tried to take the right approach, but that wasn’t good enough for somebody.
The Establishment Clause is a crucial part of the First Amendment… but so is the free exercise part. Ultimately, the message is freedom of religion… not freedom to make everybody else believe what you do.