Historians tell us that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment went through more than 20 drafts, with the Founders rejecting formulations like “there shall be no National Church.” The Establishment Clause prohibits the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion.” The courts have uniformly held that this language not only forbids the government from establishing an official religion or state Church, but also prohibits government actions that endorse or sponsor religion, favor one religion over another, or that prefer religion to non-religion, or non-religion over religion.
In other words, government is prohibited from playing favorites–from either benefitting or burdening citizens based upon their beliefs or lack thereof.
There’s constitutional principle, and then, of course, there’s real life.
A woman named Margaret Doughty, who has lived in the U.S. for 30 years, recently applied for US citizenship. One of the standard questions asked of applicants is whether they would be willing to take up arms to defend the country. According to Ed Brayton over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, Doughty replied as follows:
“I am sure the law would never require a 64 year-old woman like myself to bear arms, but if I am required to answer this question, I cannot lie. I must be honest. The truth is that I would not be willing to bear arms. Since my youth I have had a firm, fixed and sincere objection to participation in war in any form or in the bearing of arms. I deeply and sincerely believe that it is not moral or ethical to take another person’s life, and my lifelong spiritual/religious beliefs impose on me a duty of conscience not to contribute to warfare by taking up arms…my beliefs are as strong and deeply held as those who possess traditional religious beliefs and who believe in God…I want to make clear, however, that I am willing to perform work of national importance under civilian direction or to perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States if and when required by the law to do so.”
Seems like a heartfelt and entirely acceptable position to me, but no. The immigration service responded by demanding that she “submit a letter on official church stationery, attesting to the fact that you are a member in good standing and the church’s official position on the bearing of arms.” In other words, unless she can demonstrate an affiliation with an established church with an established position on the bearing of arms, this 64-year-old woman cannot become a citizen.
The official position of the immigration service, evidently, is that atheists cannot have moral objections to killing other humans. (Nor, presumably, can members of churches without “official positions” against violence. If you are a Quaker, okay; if you are a Presbyterian or a Jew, not so much.)
When the U.S. still had a military draft, this same approach imposed a real burden on conscientious objectors who could not claim membership in a pacifist congregation. Eventually, the courts agreed that personal moral positions would be deemed adequate–but only if the individual claiming conscientious objector status could “prove” that he had long harbored such compunctions. Members of religious congregations could simply verify that membership; non-members and non-believers had to provide “clear and convincing” evidence of their beliefs, by bringing in people who would testify to past conversations, letters they’d written expressing pacifist sentiments, or the like.
You might think about that, and about Margaret Doughty, the next time some rightwing pundit whines about the advance of the secular hordes, or the (non-existent )”war on Christianity.”