Karl Marx once stated, “Religion is the opium of the masses” (“Karl Marx Quotes”) and while the weight of the words may be lost in the negative stigma surrounded by Communism, these are still powerful words to examine lest the United States travel down a path controlled by religion. Like it or not, the backbone of the United States is held up by pillars of religion in a country that seems to hold certain constitutional standards higher than others. What I am referring to here is the First Amendment which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” (U.S. Constitution. Art./Amend. I, Sec. 1.). When analyzing the First Amendment, it is first important to notice that at a federal level, citizens of the United States are guaranteed religious freedoms. But the issue lies in the first clause which prohibits Congress and perhaps even legislators, in general, to defer to creating laws that respect establishments of religion. The rub here is that lawmakers have a track record of not only respecting establishments of religion in legislation but also denying rights to secular individuals and those of religions other than members of the hegemony. This problem has corrupted everyone from state lawmakers to the courts to presidential candidates. Lawmakers are obligated to appease constituents and lobbyists as they play a big role in re-election, but before all else, these lawmakers need to take a literal stance to the Constitution and focus on creating an impact while also remaining within the boundaries set by the Bill of Rights. This will relieve the massive load that is placed upon courts as legislation containing religious rhetoric is almost always brought to trial and overturned. This by no means implies that the courts are a flawless fail-safe, as religion can often find its way into the courtroom as well. What needs to happen is a complete removal of lobbyists, with a focus on religious lobbying groups in particular, from the lawmaking process. As well as harsher stances on religion in the courts by means of removing religious sponsored legal groups and interpreting the first clause as it was explicitly written. As the perception of the First Amendment is such a massive issue, I will focus my attention toward a brief history of how religion became a topic of discussion in this country, both of the Bush election campaigns, and specific cases of state-church relations in the eyes of the courts and legislators.
The religious folk, more specifically, those who fight the underpinnings of the First Amendment when talks of the separation between church and state are brought to light, oftentimes cite the founding fathers as being religious. They spit their rhetoric like viciously swinging shields and swords, rallying under the battle cry, “In God We Trust,” but what were the founding father's true intentions? The answer is far more complicated then these arguments allow. While the cited authors of the Constitution, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson, were indeed religious men, they had no inclinations of writing religion into the Constitution. It was only until the process of ratifying began that religion was brought to the forefront of early U.S. political debates. These political debates where mainly dominated by two groups, the Federalists, and the Anti-Federalists. The Federalists consisted of the revered founding fathers and were happy with the Constitution as it was without the Bill of Rights, while the Anti-Federalists believed that changes needed to be made especially regarding federal religious rights. Author Gary Glenn describes the desires of the Constitution from the perspective of the founding fathers saying that they, “Intended to establish neutrality” (Glenn 342). Thomas Jefferson supported the document without the Bill of Rights as the states had already guaranteed religious rights in their respective Constitutions. With the Federalist group heavily emphasizing an unamended Constitution, the United States is lucky to have guaranteed religious rights at a federal level at all. Which begs the question as stated by Glenn, “If that is correct, why does the conventional view interpret the thought of Madison and Jefferson who supported the original Constitution” (Glenn 340)? It is easy to forget that alongside the religious leaning of the early political men of the U.S., they were also enlightened political thinkers who wanted to leave traditional religious ideologies out of the government. With the support of religious freedoms backed by the Anti-Federalists, who were arguing on the thin ice of possible new additions to the original states, their argument takes an icy plunge into the water beneath when remembering that the United States was intended to provide powers to states that the federal government could not infringe upon. This is how religion was ratified into the Bill of Rights as if to echo a terrifying vision of the future, victory was sought to those who screamed the loudest. With the Bill of Rights added to the Constitution, legal battles that mirror those of the Federalists and Anti-Federalists continue to be fought today.
The First Amendment specifically limits lawmakers regarding religious legislation, but it is important to note how far reaching the relationship that has been fostered between religion and the government is. A recent example that is rife with the stench of religion is that of the Bush election campaigns. In 2000, when asked who his favorite philosopher was, Bush coyly states, “Christ, because he changed my heart” (Masci 1). While Jefferson had also stated that Jesus was his favorite philosopher, and President George Washington had added ‘so help me god’ to the presidential oath, Bush’s response was a malicious grasp at a religious constituency he knew would be the backbone of his voter base. What was a simple question in the eyes of voters turned out to be the beginnings of the storm to come. Further, into the campaign, they enlisted the help of the churches to mobilize their members. They asked congregations to send a list of members so they could contact potential voters. This violates the tax-exempt privilege that churches enjoy in this country and aside from minimal complaining from the opposition, no one was held accountable for their gross misconduct. This tax-exempt status is stated by the IRS as, “To be tax-exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, an organization must be organized and operated exclusively for exempt purposes set forth in section 501(c)(3), and none of its earnings may inure to any private shareholder or individual. In addition, it may not be an action organization, i.e., it may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities and it may not participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates” (“Exemption Requirements”). The IRS utilizes underlining to bring clarity to an already sensible guideline. This was an issue of accountability by the IRS as well as scores of courts who could have easily forced the churches involved with the Bush campaign to pay taxes claiming that they participated in campaign activities and supported a specific political candidate. Crossing these lines helped Bush gain an edge as he ended with two-thirds of votes from self-proclaimed regular churchgoers which recent estimates put at about 51 percent of the population as frequenters of service (Green). While it is important to note that no Constitutional boundaries were crossed as the first clause pertains to legislators, the Bush campaigns have drawn a vivid portrait of numerous religions that have infected every aspect of U.S. government institutions. Bush again demonstrated the power of religious constituent and interest groups in 2004 when gay marriage was beginning to enter the forefront of political debate. The issue of gay marriage is categorized by the concept of morality politics which states that, “Charged issues attract voters while repelling others” (Campbell and Monson). 13 states were proposing a ratification of gay marriage to their Constitution and this drew a religious crowd made up mainly of white evangelical Protestants to come out and vote against the changes. 11 of the 13 states above had their votes on the same ballot of the Constitution and an even smaller amount was on the ballots of the swing states. The strong religious rhetoric of the Bush campaign allowed dissenters of gay marriage to support a candidate that was attached to the repeals of these bills. Bush again had won the favor of the religious as it took until June 26, 2015 for gay marriage to be declared constitutional by the Supreme Court (Liptak).
For decades, the courts of the United States have acted as a lighthouse to the ships of legislation. They are the final beacon of hope or a warning signal to the ship that either warns it or crashes into the rocks ahead. Church-state legislation often forces many issues that would have otherwise been avoided had legislators read the First Amendment. While the court can overturn unconstitutional laws with religious backing, the realm of justice is still tainted by religion. Simple issues in the eyes of the First Amendment such as gay marriage, abortion, immigration, and school prayer have to be taken to the Supreme Court in order for the values of the First Amendment to be upheld. 59 cases pertaining to religion were seen from 1971-2000, which is ludicrous as legislators should not be relying on the courts to make decisions for them (Den Dulk and Pickerill 419). I had originally thought that many of the aforementioned court cases would deal with historically polarized issues such as abortion and gay marriage, but I found that a lot of them dealt with school-sponsored prayer and Bible reading. The cases Engel v. Vitale in 1962 and Abington v. Schempp in 1963 both ruled against school-sponsored prayer, but prayer still continued in schools with more discretion (Den Dulk and Pickerill 421). Therefore, it is important for legislators to draft bills without religious support because even with everything that the court does, the authority of rulings does not hold up like laws do. Twenty years after the aforementioned cases, religion tried to creep its way into schools again, but this time it worked. Widmar v. Vincent (1981) ruled that public schools, specifically colleges, cannot discriminate against groups in providing facilities (Den Dulk and Pickerill 421). This is a monstrosity, a culmination of the blatant disregard for the First Amendment that has been illustrated throughout the history of church-state relations. To add insult to injury, the Christian Legal Society (CLS) sponsored the case. This legal group is made up of evangelical attorneys that won a case that would be the basis of the Equal Access Act (EAA) later in the year (Den Dulk and Pickerill 421). The Equal Access Act built upon the ruling in Widmar v. Vincent and wrote into stone protections for religious groups on public campuses to be guaranteed meeting spaces. The irony is that in the eyes of the law, secular groups would not see rights like this until 1995 in Rosenberger v. The University of Virginia when they were allowed the guarantee of meeting space that religious group had been utilizing for 14 years (Den Dulk and Pickerill 422). Hypocrisies such as this cannot be allowed in the courts and this change needs to begin with disallowing religious groups to sponsor legal battles that concern the ideals of the First Amendment that should, in theory, have been preventing them from sponsoring anything the entire time. It borders on insanity that church-state affairs have been blurred to the point that an evangelical attorney can walk into a courtroom and win a case that does not concern religion at all. The very term “church-state” with its taunting hyphen, indicates that as a country the United States has forgotten that the two should not even be spoken in the same sentence together.
On top of the religious legal groups, interest groups are also commonplace in the realm of legislation. Authors Leeger, Welch and Woodbury dare to state, “Such developments [lessening opposition to churches in lawmaking] should not be surprising, as it is clear that public opinion has become increasingly tolerant of churches and religious organizations expressing their views on socio-political issues and actually becoming involved in their political process” (Leeger Welch, and Woodbury 650). They pretend as if this is a change for the better which suggests that they reap the benefits of the congressional debauchery. It is staggering to see the fixtures that special interest groups have created in the lawmaking process that has been weighed down by unconstitutional meddling. In 2008, The American Jewish Committee spent $13.362 million dollars making them the third biggest spender of all special interest groups that year (Liu). With 67 religious lobby groups in the 1970’s and 215 in the 2000’s, the concern for religion's role in the government should be rising as quickly as the number of interest groups in the U.S (Liu). These groups need to be removed completely from the lawmaking process because if they do not, they will continue to grow until they completely rule the policy-making process.
For a country so concerned with values, it is time to remember them. Like it or not, the Bill of Rights is a hallmark of this country and the sustenance of it needs to be treated as such. Without respect for every single Amendment that has ever been written, none of them hold any power. Horning religion out of the facets of government may not be a quick process or even happen at all, but with time and knowledge of the issue, changes can be made. Religion has won the battle against the First Amendment, but the courts and legislators cannot let it win the war. It is time to stop letting the people get stomped on by groups who think they are above the law. Law is binding and if the pillars of justice mean anything, religion will someday pay the price for manipulating that law. People will remember the visions of the founding fathers and seek to visualize the same country they did. The lobbyists will slowly begin to lose the grip around the neck of Congress that they have held tightly for so long. The courts will begin to rule with an iron fist and use it to combat the corruption that has befallen on the most sacred institutions of the United States. As Karl Marx once said, “Religion is the opium of the masses.” It’s time to suffer the withdrawals and live a clean existence.
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