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Religious Symbolism in the Public Sphere

Essay by   •  January 4, 2015  •  Essay  •  1,062 Words (5 Pages)  •  1,060 Views

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Religious Symbolism in the Public Sphere

The chosen topic for my government senior project is religion in public, and as I was researching, I was looking to find an answer to my essential question: Do religious symbols and in public institutions violate the establishment and free exercise clauses of the first amendment? It's a topic that relates to first amendment rights. The Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses, also known as the religious clauses, are the first words of the first amendment which say, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." This debate over the issue of religious symbolism is controversial, especially because there are so many religions in America.

There is this idea of separation of church and state, that doesn't exist, that many people espouse. There is no mention of it in the Constitution either. Anti-religionists wants to use the Constitution to ban religion (including religious symbolism) from the public sphere; to relegate religion to only the churches and other religious institutions.

Through the research of many web sources, online news articles and court cases that relate to my topic. The court cases I've selected deal with the establishment and free exercise clauses.

ALLEGHENY v. ACLU (1989), was a Supreme Court Case that helped settle the debate over public-sponsored holiday displays in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Court agreed that the religious displays in the Allegheny County Courthouse were an unconstitutional violation of the Establishment Clause. The Supreme Court also made the jurisdiction that the other religious displays outside the Courthouse did not violate the Establishment Clause. The American Civil Liberties Union claimed the displays constituted state endorsement of religion. In a 5-to-4 decision (5 votes majority for ACLU, 4 votes minority against). The Supreme Court held that not all religious celebrations on government property violated the Establishment Clause. The ruling asserted, "The government's use of religious symbolism is unconstitutional if it has the effect of endorsing religious beliefs, and the effect of the government's use of religious symbolism depends upon its context." Another court case, Cantwell v. Connecticut, deals with the Free Exercise clause.

CANTWELL v. STATE OF CONNECTICUT (1940), was a Supreme Court case in which the Court held that the government has no role in determining religious truth, and that the peaceful expression of beliefs secured by the Free Exercise clause, is protected by the First Amendment from infringement by the federal government as well as state governments. The Cantwells were arrested for solicitation without a permit and for inciting a breach of the peace. In a unanimous decision (9-0), the Supreme Court held that while general regulations on solicitation were legitimate, restrictions based on religious grounds were not, and that while the maintenance of public order was a valid state interest, it could not be used to justify the suppression of "free communication of views." The Cantwells' message, while offensive to many, did not entail any threat of "bodily harm". First Amendment rights protected their expression of their religious beliefs.

Religious symbolism and actions in public institutions, like public school classrooms, are controversial. "Even though the U.S. Supreme Court banned school-sponsored prayer in public schools over 50 years ago, most Americans do not think that it should be that way." Most Americans now support student prayer in public school classrooms.

There's a "cross controversy" in Grand Haven, Michigan. The cross on Dewey Hill has been in Grand Haven for decades. Some of the city residents complained. At a city meeting on October 15, council members came to the decision that the city has two options: let the cross stay, and let other groups put symbols on the hill, or take the cross down,

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