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Religious Displays on Public Property and the U.S. Constitution

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Religious Displays on Public Property and the U.S. Constitution:

The Establishment Clause in the First Amendment

Religious Displays on Public Property and the U.S. Constitution

Religious displays can be publicly put on view almost anywhere in the United States: in and around individual homes, in businesses, in offices, plus among other places. They cannot, however, be shown by themselves in public parks, public schools, or offices operated at municipal, state, and federal levels of government. With extremely few exceptions, courts have repeatedly ruled that religious displays cannot be presented by themselves because that would be a violation of the principles that designed to separate the wall between church and state. On the word of Texas Attorney General Greg Abbot, however, "When the Ten Commandments appears on government property; their religious aspect does not automatically render their display as unconstitutional."

The precise nature of this ongoing conflict oftentimes has become concealed or obscured. Many times, media accounts indicate that religiously progressive organizations have teamed with derisive sacrilegious groups and are trying to put an end to all displays of any religion, particularly those that are Christian and can be seen within the community. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution affirms "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." Many refer to this as the "Establishment Clause." Religious displays on public property, however, continues to be a point of debate that has led to the decisions on if the monuments and religious symbols should be removed or be allowed to remain at their current locations. Some argue the denial of the opportunity to display these symbols of their faith is an infringement of the "Free Exercise Clause" and claim it is a violation of their freedom of speech guaranteed within the Bill of Rights. Because it is difficult for someone who is not skilled in constitutional law to form a suitable argument for the Free Exercise Clause, the purpose of this paper, therefore, is to survey the decision of the courts based on the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. In doing so, perhaps an argument can be made that the Constitution of the United States leaves ample room for both religion and the displaying of it in the public square.

What exactly, then, is the argument? Why does the U.S. Constitution require such separation? Most historians agree that the establishment of the United States possibly represented the most progressive political movement in the history of Western Civilization. The establishment of the American colonies, consequently, also occurred at a time during the 18th century when a philosophic movement conveyed a spirited questioning of authority, sited strong interest in matters of both politics and general culture, as well as placed an emphasis on the experimental method in science. This was the Age of Enlightenment. This new age philosophy perhaps received its motivation from the random, but deep-rooted skepticism of Pierre Bayle, the physical laws of Newton, and the epistemological theories of Locke, from the previous century; however, some believe the settlers who founded the American colonies were "leaders of various dogmatic religious persuasions." "When it became necessary to unite against England," according to Washington State professor Paul Brians, "it was apparent that no one of them could prevail over the others and that the most desirable course was to agree to disagree." As a result, Brians states, "nothing more powerfully impelled the movement toward the separation of church and state than the realization that no one church could dominate this new state." Thus, the political doctrines of the leaders of the American Revolution and opinions of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine embodied the undertaking in the United States, and "the language of natural law, of inherent freedoms, of self-determination which seeped so deeply into the American grain was the language of the Enlightenment." Though often coated with a light glaze of traditional religion, many refer to it as America's "civil religion." Over time, however, many in academic circles no longer considered God as the source of the cause of the universe; rather these new progressive intellectuals believed that change and reason were both conceivable and needed for the sake of human liberty.

Not everyone, on the other hand, agreed with this movement at the Nation's founding nor does everyone in the United States continue to maintain a similar liberal worldview today. M. E. Bradford, a longtime professor at the University of Dallas and editor of the J. S. Sanders Southern Classics reprint series, believed some of the misperception that perhaps has steered many Americans, and possibly even the nation's courts, to a misunderstanding of the Constitution and Bill of Rights is the elite prestige given to a selected few of early American leaders. As stated by Bradford, this seemed to elevate the essence of what the Founding Fathers had in mind concerning accomplishing America's national independence; then afterwards, channeled the momentum generated by the Revolution into the establishment of a new form of government, one that was "part national and part federal." Bradford wrote that this resulted in forcing these few to function as representatives of a "golden moment" of "perfect toleration" and public enlightenment, the embodiments of reason, and placed windows on the American soul, on the collective spirit from which, as a nation and policy, we most legitimately and rightfully derive. Conceivably nothing has divided the nation and the courts more during the 20th century than the displaying of religious symbols on public property.

The first court case this paper will survey is Stone v. Graham. This case involved a Kentucky statute which had been upheld by the lower court. The statute required the posting of a copy of the Ten Commandments on classroom walls of each public school in the State. Petitioners claimed that this statute violated both the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment; therefore, they sought an injunction against enforcement of the statute. As alluded to earlier, the state trial courts upheld the statute, finding that the statute's "avowed purpose" was "secular and not religious," and that the statute would "neither advance nor inhibit any religion or religious group" nor entangle the State excessively in religious matters. The

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