By Jane Henegar, Executive Director, ACLU of Indiana
No doubt, the distinctions between the First Amendment's protections for an individual's free exercise of religion and the First Amendment's prohibition against government's endorsement of religion can be confusing and complicated. However, each of the arguments that Mr. Heck [ACLU declares 'war' on the Constitution, 12/18/16] presents has been addressed and squarely rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Here is what past U.S. Supreme Court decisions say about the issues surrounding the town of Knightstown's decision to place a cross on top of a Christmas tree in the town square:
- A Christmas tree has become a secular seasonal decoration. This conclusion by the Court is clearly shared by the millions of Americans and businesses who celebrate the holiday with a decorated tree in their living rooms or shop windows even though they may not celebrate the religious significance of the holiday.
- Conversely, a Latin cross, such as the one that the town of Knightstown decided to place atop its tree, is the preeminent symbol of Christianity and not traditionally associated with Christmas.
- When town government adds a Cross to its otherwise secularized decorations (trees, sleigh bells, and Santa Claus with his reindeer) it endorses Christianity over other religions.
- The First Amendment prohibits all levels of government from endorsing religion. This Constitutional prohibition understandably covers actions of state and local governments, such as Knightstown, and not merely laws enacted by Congress.
- Individuals have the right to freely exercise their religion, but the Establishment Clause of the Constitution makes clear that government does not have that same right.
- A town government can open up the public square to allow individuals to express their individual religious beliefs if they allow all individuals, regardless of their faith, to do so. But, many cities, towns, or states have found the ensuing free exercise free-for-all to be unmanageable because Satanists, pagans, or other beliefs invariably seek to add their symbols to the public square.
There are powerful and deeply American reasons why we prohibit government from endorsing any one religion or banning others. Our Founders understood that our country and our freedoms flourish when religious discourse and promotion are left to the people, instead of government. Then as now, America is a beacon of freedom for those living in other countries that impose rules on the faith or thought of their people. The Establishment Clause has ensured that all residents of America enjoy the greatest amount of religious liberty that exists on the globe.
The ACLU of Indiana will stand with all individuals who seek to preserve their constitutionally protected rights, such as the residents of Knightstown who, expressing their faith, have handed out crosses and displayed them on their private property. James Madison advocated for the adoption of the Bill of Rights, starting with the First Amendment, to protect such individual freedoms but also to protect minorities from the power of majorities in a democracy. The ACLU is proud to have the role of ensuring that the words of the Constitution have real and enduring meaning for everyone.
Editors: Please contact Lisa Vielee, (317) 979-4424 for more information or to publish.