Generic Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, much less a constitutional scholar. What follows are my opinions on what I think the framers of our government had in mind when they set it up the way they did. It is a common man's view of what words mean. Frequently, that isn't the same thing as what a skilled lawyer or judge can twist the meaning into. It is my personal opinion that the majority of our country's founding fathers would be ashamed of what we have done with the fine documents they drafted over the years.
The first amendment in the Bill of Rights to the Constitution of the United States of America, doesn't allow the federal government to establish a country wide church such as the Anglican Church in England. It also doesn't allow the federal government to keep people from freely exercising their own particular religion, whatever that may be. The founding fathers were clearly against both those things. First, let's look at the text itself.
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.
It is interesting that even after a Revolutionary war, fought in part because the people felt they had neither representation in their government nor any ability to make their voices heard, weren't permitted to assemble freely, couldn't say what they wanted without fear of reprisal, and could be arrested for publishing seditious documents, that religious freedom - the very thing that caused many of them to leave England in the first place - was the first item listed in their amendments to their new Constitution. Religious freedom came even before freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the freedom to assemble, much less petition their government to address grievances. All of these others were truly hot button topics of the times, but freedom of religion was listed first.
Nowhere does the Constitution or its amendments declare that the federal government must exist in a complete vacuum with respect to religion as many claim today. For many colonists, religion was part and parcel of their lives and there was no expectation that by entering a government establishment, they would all of a sudden be completely free of all vestiges of religion. They simply didn't feel it was the job of the government to say that everyone must belong to the Anglican Church of England (to use their contemporary nemesis) in order to serve in any capacity in the government nor to force all people in the land to belong to that particular church.
So what is allowed? Where does freedom of religious expression stop and establishment of a religion begin?
The Bill of Rights does permit politicians to answer questions about religious subjects and to state their beliefs. Believe it or not, it doesn't even have to be in response to somebody's question. It does allow them to issue personal or public prayers. There is no requirement that they check their religious beliefs at the door when they go into the office and voluntarily give up or cease expressing them while in office.
Elected officials or other individuals offering a prayer does not establish a national religion. It doesn't matter if it is offered in times of peril, disaster, or at simpler stress free times. If a person of a particular religion is elected, then everyone in the country should expect that any such prayer offered by that individual would follow the norms of the religious body that person is a part of. Officials shouldn't have to monitor what they say to make sure the religious thought police don't sue them or arrest them or beat them up in a dark alleyway. There are enough places in the world where that goes on. It shouldn't happen in the United States of America.
Too often today, any prayer that is offered must be moderated or toned down to a point that regular church attendees of the particular religious organization giving the prayer wouldn't recognize it. This is a violation of the freedom of religious expression clause.
I do recognize that anyone putting on an event has the right to make the event look and sound the way they want and have the right to establish whatever guidelines they want before asking someone to speak. However, they can't say they are supporting the Constitution and in the same breath then say "Pray, but only say this and never say that. You must be inclusive and not exclusive." It just doesn't work that way.
All religious organizations are inclusive by nature - they want everyone to join their faith. Almost all are exclusive, however, and feel that their way is the exclusive way to God. To force them to deny that is a violation of their freedom of expression rights. Note that I lump all Catholic and Protestant orders (along with all non-denominational Christian organizations) together under a big Christian umbrella when I say that. We may have some minor differences in interpretation on some points, but we agree on 99% of the rest.
If you are a religious official and are asked to speak at a presentation or to offer a prayer, be very careful that what you say is what God wants you to say. If you know you will be cowed into saying things you wouldn't ordinarily say or won't be allowed to say something God is laying on your heart you should decline the invitation. If you willingly go along with the censoring, you'll give the imprimatur of the church to the event or individual and will have to answer to God for your actions. Whatever glory you might get is very temporal and fleeting and can't in any way be stacked up against having to answer to God for your actions.
Clergy of various religious groups offering prayers at the start of Congress or other legislative sessions also doesn't establish a national religion. The only requirement I see is that the government can't exclude particular religions or favor one religion over another in filling positions of the clergy in government.
If it offers to allow public prayers for one religion, it must do so for all that want to participate on an equal basis. This doesn't have to happen at the same event and doesn't have to happen at every single public event that exists. In particular, just because you let one Assemblies of God pastor pray during one event, you don't have to allow clergy from every other religion in town to pray at the same event. The probability of a particular religious group being selected should be based on its prevalence in the particular body's jurisdictional area. I would expect to have more Southern Baptists offering prayers in Southern States, for example. Where more Catholics are prevalent, I would expect to see more priests officiating. In areas with high Jewish concentrations, I would expect to see more rabbis. In localities that have higher Buddhist concentrations, I would expect to see more monks. In Arabic areas, I would expect to see more imams represented. And yes, where most are officially atheist, prayers could occasionally be omitted at times when they would usually be given.
Let's try to be adult about it and not get into the gerrymandering that the politicians have made so popular in drawing political districts and let random select work as it's supposed to. So, for example, if you're a Southern Baptist church member in Georgia and random chance causes a person who follows Wicca to do whatever they do at the start of your football game, then you just need to suck it up and praise God you live in a country with religious freedom and get on with your life without making a federal case out of it. If nothing else, it'll give you an individual to pray for. If you're an atheist and find that 90% of the events have someone praying, then you need to suck it up and realize that 90% of your neighbors, nominally at least, call themselves Christian and not make a federal case out of it either.
On a more practical local level, the government cannot disallow prayer in school as long as you aren't coercing anyone else to pray your prayers in school. Thousands of Christian test takers will be relieved to know that. It must allow your religious group to gather and meet using school facilities in similar fashion to any other group of people at the school. If certain groups are allowed to pass out information at the school, then religious groups cannot be excluded from handing out tracts and Bibles. Government, in all its forms, must be neutral to religion - not agnostic or atheistic as it frequently seems to be today.
What about the atheists?
The separation of church and state has become a more interesting issue in recent years. Various courts have declared that atheism must be considered a religion. Others have declared secular humanism to be a religion.
Sometimes these rulings come from lawsuits that originate in prisons where inmates want to form a group of like minded inmates who believe that God does not exist. They feel that since religious groups who believe in God are allowed, their group should also be permitted on an equal religious basis. When they win the verdict and are allowed to form groups based on the religious belief that there is no God, they officially establish the Religion of Atheism in the eyes of the legal bodies in that jurisdiction. Other times, atheist groups go to court or request that they be allowed to put up monuments alongside other religious monuments or nativity scenes declaring there are people who don't believe in God. When governments allow this, they also effectively end up establishing atheism as a religion at the same level as other religions in that locality.
Some decry this practice and say that atheism cannot be a religion. They feel that the very existence of these lawsuits makes a mockery of real religious groups. A strict reading of most dictionary definitions of religion would tend to imply otherwise. Religions, at their most basic level, are groups of people who hold to a particular set of beliefs about God. If you believe that God does not exist, as the atheists believe, then that meets the basic definition of a religious group.
Problems with Atheism as a Religion
However, when atheism and secular humanism are officially established in a jurisdiction as a religion, it brings about some really thorny problems.
Atheist groups are frequently at the forefront trying to get religion out of every place they can so they will never see, hear, or read a reference to God. They really want to go through their lives, secure in their misguided idea that God doesn't exist. Examples of their work include...
- attempts to remove "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance,
- the removal of "In God We Trust" from our currency and coins
- the suppression of any prayers uttered by any individual,
- the suppression of any prayers uttered by an elected official,
- the removal of any funding for social programs if implemented by a religious organization,
- the removal of chaplains in the armed forces and government bodies.
The list is not inclusive. They want the complete separation of church and state and would very much prefer that church and all religious belief systems in the entire world disappear completely. They like to claim tolerance for others, but the die-hard atheist is completely intolerant of anything that hints of God and denigrates anyone who believes in a higher power. If it isn't based on science, it doesn't exist and should never be mentioned anywhere in the world. People getting healed really messes with their value system.
The problem with this is that the very act of removing or limiting the practice of any of these things now gives preference to their newly adjudicated Religion of Atheism, which doesn't believe in God. Therefore, the same Constitutional Amendment that they want to use to get rid of references to God in public now hamstrings them (or should if the courts were sane) because it gives preference to their newly legally recognized religion. The government is not allowed to prefer one religion over another, remember, so these things they desire are against the Constitution. Sigh.
What Should Christians Do?
Know your rights. Defend them, but be Christian about your defense. You don't win any hearts by yelling, fighting, cursing, or suing. But do go on record that your rights are being trampled on by bad government decisions. One person may not make a difference. If many speak up, things can change to make life easier and fairer for Christians with the same effectiveness that the atheists have had going the other way.
Having said that, I think there are a wide range of issues that Christians shouldn't advocate from the top down. Just because you are a Christian in a position of public trust, you should be careful using your position as a bully pulpit to try to convert the people you come in contact with to your belief system. The key thing about any issue is to be sure you understand everything that God has said about a particular subject and make sure that anything you push as a value or a belief that you think the country might be interested in knowing about is backed up theologically before you open your mouth.
It is up to the Holy Spirit to convict people of sin and to lead them to God (John 16:8). My current Sunday School teacher has a appropriate comment. He claims that he hasn't always been successful in leading people he has witnessed to about Christ to accept Him as Savior. However, he states that of the people that the Holy Spirit has led him to witness to, he has had a 100% success rate in conversion during witnessing. The Christian church needs to have all its members be Spirit-filled so that God can use them to declare His glory to the world today (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:8). We need Christians that are not just Christians in name only. We need the works God did in the Early Church and throughout the church age to be just as commonplace today (John 14:12). It is easy for atheists to criticize religions that have no power. It is much more difficult to stand against a live, vibrant church of God where he is visibly at work 7 days a week. There will always be that nagging doubt when they rail that they may end up like the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:7-39). I know that that story ends badly for the prophets of Baal, but the point I want to stress is the difference between the empty idolatrous religions and religions where God is at work.
Remember that God is still on the throne, and He has a plan for everything (John 5:17-47). All Christians will be better off in moving with Him and accepting His guidance than in getting all defensive and un-Christian when we feel our rights are being trampled (Matthew 5:39). He is the great equalizer and all knees will bow before Him and acknowledge Him eventually (Phil. 2:9-11).