No constitutional issue has generated more legal tangles than the words in the First Amendment; “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof … ” The language states that there can be no governmentally authorized religion, but not any restriction on religious practice. The purposeful ambiguity has allowed courts to read into the words about anything society was feeling at the moment. Nevertheless, even given the fluidity of the language, there are boundaries. On one hand, it is clear that the United States has no official church. We are not legally a Christian nation. Those who want an authorized religion are always defeated in court. On the other hand, those who hold that religion should play no public part in national affairs come off no better. Ambiguity seems to rule. Since 1974, "Under God" has been in the Pledge of Allegiance. "In God We Trust" is on our coins. We have chaplains in our armed forces, and even in Congress. I believe the courts have given a wink and a nod to what many believe are violations. On the other hand, officially sanctioned religious prayers in classrooms are forbidden.
Here is a contemporary question: what is the legal role of religion in political campaigns? Does a candidate have the constitutional right to insert his or her private religious convictions into public pronouncements or campaign literature? If Rick Santorum publically said the birth control issue was part of his religious commitment, that affirmation probably fell under the “free exercise” language. However, if the Catholic Bishops declare that the United States must bow to a purely religious edict, and Congress goes along, that is clearly over the line.
Among a small group of Americans one hears the cry, “keep religion out of politics.” While for some that feels right, we still have the balance found in the First Amendment. Many of us on the political left fume when activists on the political right want to include creationism in science classrooms. On the other hand, there are those who decry the incursion of other issues into the national debate. Would they have tried to keep Martin Luther King Jr. out of the civil rights struggle because he was an avowed Christian who believed that what he stood for flowed from his faith? Had his voice been eliminated on that basis, we would never have had a voting rights law. King’s effort clearly falls on the side of free exercise, but the argument of the creationists may not. In the Dover School District case, it was ruled that creationism was an effort to prove the existence of God using public funds, and therefore unconstitutional.
The Constitution does not guarantee freedom from religion, but freedom of religion. Liberal churches these days are committed to certain social policies, and work to see that they are part of the national consensus. Some examples are the end of the death penalty, the full rights of gay and lesbian persons to marry, the end of torture as a national policy, health care for all, a just immigration agenda, strengthening the social safety net, an end to world hunger — and much more. Promoting these vital matters, not just as vital social matters but also as moral and religious imperatives, clearly falls on the free exercise side of the First Amendment.
There are nations which prohibit religious values from having any role in public affairs, but their governing documents are not like ours. For those who believe that religious convictions should have no place in national life, their only option is to seek a change in the Constitution. As of now, the free exercise clause does not prohibit religious groups from speaking in the public square.
The legal favoring of one religion over another or even religion over irreligion has no valid place in our official governmental life. The Ten Commandments are not to be placed in our schoolrooms or on public property. Religious symbols, such as the cross, have no place on national shrines. Congress is prohibited from saying that any one religion or religion in general is the basis for any part of our official national life. Nevertheless, in the United States, religion never has been simply a private affair. In the meantime many of us will grimace when some types of religious activities get intruded into our political campaigns, as politicians stand reverently while being prayed for by a religious authority. Although the Constitutional line may not be crossed in such displays, respect for the principle of church/state separation may be.