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Can Church And State Be Separate In A More Religiously Diverse America?

Activists hold posters during a rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court to support separation of church and state, March 2, 2005, in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Activists hold posters during a rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court to support separation of church and state, March 2, 2005, in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

With Sacha Pfeiffer

Increasing numbers of Americans say they have no religious affiliation. They’re making their voices heard in the public square and at the Supreme Court.


Jay Wexler, professor at Boston University School of Law. Former lawyer at the U.S. Department of Justice. Author of “Our Non-Christian Nation: How Atheists, Satanists, Pagans, and Others Are Demanding Their Rightful Place in Public Life.” (@SCOTUSHUMOR)

Debbie Goddard, vice president of programs for American Atheists, a nonprofit dedicated to defending the civil liberties of atheists, and advocating for the complete separation of church and state. (@DebGod)

From The Reading List

Excerpt from “Our Non-Christian Nation” by Jay Wexler


The residents of Belle Plaine, Minnesota, would probably like the world to think that the town’s population is 6,600 or 6,700, but according to the 2010 census (and as reported on the highway signs that mark the town borders), its actual population is 6,661. With a number like that, could it really be just a coincidence that this homey, homogeneous hamlet about forty minutes southwest of Minneapolis would have instigated a nationwide controversy over the First Amendment when it became the first city ever to authorize the erection of a Satanic monument on government property?

Yes. Yes, of course it’s a coincidence. But kind of a funny one, you have to admit, right?

It all started when the family of a veteran named Joe installed a small monument in Joe’s honor on the grounds of the peaceful Veterans Memorial Park a few blocks from what counts as downtown Belle Plaine. The monument is a black silhouette of a soldier kneeling before a cross. The whole thing is maybe two feet wide by two feet high, and if it hadn’t been for a resident of the town who had been harassed for her non-Christian beliefs in the past, the monument (which is widely known simply as “Joe”) would probably have gone unnoticed by anyone outside the town.

This resident, however, was offended that the town had placed a cross on public property, so in August 2016 she contacted the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), an Atheist activist group working out of Madison, Wisconsin, that over the years has aggressively brought legal actions to enforce its strict view of the separation of church and state. FFRF threatened the city with a lawsuit if it didn’t remove the cross from the monument, so the town—its coffers not exactly overflowing with cash for defending itself in federal court—ordered in January 2017 that the cross be removed.

Residents of the town—almost all of them white Christians—rebelled. Citizens gathered daily at the park holding flags and crosses. Many put two-dimensional cutout versions of Joe on the outsides of their homes to show support for the Christian monument. At a heated city council meeting in early February, more than a hundred citizens stood shoulder to shoulder, filling the cramped chambers of the city hall on Meridian Street to ask the council to revisit its decision. Referring to FFRF as a “cowardly out-of-state hate group,” a speaker representing the town’s veterans called for the council to create a “free speech zone” or “limited public forum” within the park where private parties, including Joe’s family, could erect monuments to honor the town’s veterans.

After some debate and reworking of the original proposal, the city council in February adopted a resolution creating an area inside the park measuring seven feet by three and a half feet for such displays. These memorials would be approved on a first-come, first-served basis without respect to their religious content and could remain in the zone for up to one year. Signs posted near the forum would explain that the displays within the zone were the expressions of private individuals and were not being endorsed by the city. Very soon after the creation of the free speech zone, Joe’s family returned the black silhouette monument in its original form, complete with the cross, to Veterans Memorial Park.

Creation of the free speech zone seemed to be enough to satisfy FFRF, but it also provided a new opportunity for a religious group headquartered in Salem, Massachusetts, known as the Satanic Temple. TST, as it’s often called, was founded by a group of Satanists a few years back and quickly gained a national reputation for some of its high-visibility activities, including its July 2013 “Pink Mass,” at which a bunch of gay and lesbian couples made out at the Meridian, Mississippi, gravesite of the mother of Fred Phelps, the leader of the horrific anti-gay hate group known as the Westboro Baptist Church. I will have a lot to say about TST later in the book, but for now the key thing to know about it is that one of its primary projects as an organization is to demand that the government treat all religions equally. In other words, if a city or town or state puts up a Christian monument on public property, then TST will insist that it put up a Satanic monument as well.

The Satanic Temple applied for permission to place a Satanic monument in the free speech zone at Veterans Memorial Park, and the city council, following the terms of its resolution, agreed, thus making Belle Plaine the first town in the United States to grant approval for a Satanic monument to be erected on public property. Perhaps the town thought it was just calling the Satanists’ bluff, but if that was the case, it severely underestimated TST’s resolve. The temple commissioned an artist named Chris Andres to design and build the monument and crowdfunded more than $12,000 to pay for it. The monument, which was completed in early summer of 2017, is a black steel rectangle measuring two feet by two feet by three feet, with embossed inverted golden pentagrams on each side and an upside-down soldier’s helmet, also made from black steel, on the top. According to Andres, the helmet was designed to be used as a kind of bowl, for families and others to place messages to fallen veterans.

Once the monument was complete, the only thing left to do was for TST and the town to figure out when it would be installed. As the citizens of Belle Plaine began to realize that Satan was in fact coming to town, though, concern began to mount. A group of Catholics planned a rosary rally against the monument to be held at the park in mid-July. According to Robert Ritchie, director of America Needs Fatima, the national Catholic group that helped plan the rally: “Every time the devil is accepted, mankind is the loser, because he’s only capable of doing evil. The more accepted he is, the more evil he will bring to us. And that’s why it’s important to pray against it.” Members of Minnesota’s Left Hand Path Community vowed to be present at the park on the same day to express their support for the contested monument.

Despite the controversy, TST continued to plan for the monument’s installation. Over the course of researching this book, I’ve gotten to know a few members of the group, in particular its cofounder and spokesperson, Lucien Greaves (whose real name is Doug Mesner). I contacted Mesner to find out if there were any concrete plans for moving the monument to Minnesota, so I could arrange to be there for the event, and he asked me if I’d be interested in helping to drive it there when it was ready. Really? Whoa! How exciting! I’d be embedded with TST like a journalist in an army unit during the Iraq War as one of the great moments in the nation’s religious history played out.

Yes, I said. Definitely yes!

“Separation of church and state.” It’s one of the venerable phrases of our democratic experiment, right up there with “freedom of speech,” “checks and balances,” and “alternative facts.”* Fleeing a despotic kingdom that had an official church, the framers of the Constitution were terrified of power overly concentrated in any one institution, and so they sought to separate religion and government in much the same way that they split power between the federal government and the states, or among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. In his 1785 Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, the most important document from the founding era on the virtues of separating church and state, James Madison wrote about the perils of government support of religion, claiming that taxing the public to support Christian teaching would threaten the conscience of nonbelievers, encourage political tyranny, and undermine the vigor of religion itself. And Thomas Jefferson, in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists, coined the famous phrase, when he observed that the Constitution had built “a wall of separation between Church and State.” As a society, we have been debating just how high that wall should be ever since.

Despite its rhetorical appeal, the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear anywhere in the Constitution itself. Nor does the Constitution say much at all about the specifics of that separation. What the Constitution does say about religion is almost entirely contained in the first sentence of the First Amendment, which reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The first part of that sentence is referred to as the “Establishment Clause,” while the second is commonly called the “Free Exercise Clause.” Both parts are critical to the concept of separating church and state, but when it comes to limiting government support of religion, rather than limiting government regulation of religion, it is the Establishment Clause that plays the most important role. But figuring out exactly what the clause means and how it should be applied to the countless ways that government and religion can potentially interact in our complex and diverse modern society is no easy task. In our constitutional democracy, the authority to interpret and apply the Constitution falls primarily to the courts, and ultimately to the Supreme Court of the United States. Operationally, then, the specific contours of the “separation of church and state” in this country have been set by the Supreme Court, which has interpreted and applied the Establishment Clause in a string of cases beginning in 1947 and continuing to the present day.

There was a time, primarily in the 1970s and 1980s, when the Supreme Court took the Establishment Clause a lot more seriously than it does today. It placed stringent limits on government funding of religion, for example, and largely kept religion out of the public schools. Over the past couple of decades, however, the Supreme Court has etched a new path of church-state relations and the First Amendment. In a series of cases, the Court has either expanded religion’s right to access public money, property, and institutions, or it has confirmed what many hoped was religion’s right to access these things.

For example, in the 2001 case of Good News Club v. Milford Central School, the Court held that if a public school opens up its classrooms to after-school groups, it cannot exclude religious groups from using them, even if the groups are actively proselytizing young children. In 2002, in the case of Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the Court upheld a school voucher program that funneled millions of dollars to religious schools. The 2005 case of Van Orden v. Perry upheld the placement of a huge stone Ten Commandments monument right in front of the Texas State Capitol, and a 2014 case called Town of Greece v. Galloway held that town boards are free to begin their meetings with explicitly sectarian prayers. The nation’s Christian majority has pounced on these and other decisions, putting up Christian displays on public property all over the country, giving prayers before town board meetings in every state, proselytizing young kids with after-school clubs in elementary schools across America, and using tons of government money to fund their organizations. I’m not sure it’s accurate to say that the United States was ever really “separationist,” but if it was, then the nation we live in now—with a few exceptions here and there—is pretty much a post-separationist one.

Alongside these legal developments, though, the nation has been experiencing another important change, this one demographic rather than legal. In recent years, the United States has become less and less Christian. Quantitative evidence of such a shift is always subject to legitimate quibbling, but at least one scholar has estimated that 98 percent of colonists in the revolutionary period were Christians, and that number, according to regular Gallup polls, remained above 90 percent as late as the early 1970s. As recently as 2007, the Pew Research Center, which is probably the preeminent authority on the demographics of religion in the United States, reported that 78.4 percent of American citizens described themselves as believing in some sort of Christianity. In Pew’s 2014 comprehensive survey, however, that figure had declined to 70.6 percent. The nation is now more diverse than ever, with the share of Americans identifying with non-Christian faiths having risen to 5.9 percent at the time of that survey. Of particular interest is the number of people who describe themselves as not believing in God or a higher power at all. These “nones,” according to Pew, made up nearly 22.8 percent of the population in 2014; a more recent study, from the Public Religion Research Institute, puts the number at 25 percent. In short, with nearly three out of every ten Americans now describing themselves as non-Christian, we are living in an increasingly non-Christian nation.

These two developments raise the inevitable question of what non-Christians are to do in this post-separationist America. As a longtime Atheist who has studied religion and feels an affinity for many minority religious traditions, particularly Taoism, Buddhism, and others that originated far away from the United States,† I’ve been thinking about this question for a while now. Three major possibilities come to mind. First, non-Christians could continue to fight in the courts to limit or even reverse some of the Supreme Court’s anti-separationist precedents. Second, they could do basically nothing and go about their business, conceding that the fight for separationism is mostly lost and allowing the Christian majority to enjoy the spoils. Or finally, non-Christians could devote their energies to taking advantage of the Court’s precedents and demanding their rightful place in American public life alongside the Christian majority. After all, although the Court’s anti-separationist decisions all involve Christian attempts to access government money, property, and institutions, the Court has always maintained that the government must treat all religious views equally. If Christians can erect their monuments on public property and give invocations before town boards and run after-school proselytizing clubs and apply for government funding, then so too can non-Christians. Maybe that’s what Atheists and members of minority religious groups ought to be doing.

Although many non-Christians continue to fight for separationism in the courts and others are content to go about their own business (there are costs to being supported by the government, after all), an increasing number of Atheists and minority religious believers have, in recent years, begun to pursue the third option and are starting to demand their rightful place in public life. Atheists have given invocations before town boards. A small religious group in Utah that believes in mummification asked a local park to put up their “Seven Aphorisms” monument next to the Ten Commandments. Pagans demanded that the Veterans Administration allow the Wiccan pentacle on gravestones at national cemeteries. Islamic schools from Cleveland to North Carolina have participated in voucher programs and received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the government. Scientologists and Hare Krishnas have accepted funds from federal agencies to provide services to believers and nonbelievers alike. And Satanists have done everything from giving prayers before government bodies to asking towns for permission to install their monuments to creating after-school clubs to counter the efforts of aggressive Christian organizations.

The primary purpose of this book is to explain and explore this fascinating and important new phenomenon. In a series of chapters about religious monuments, sectarian displays, legislative prayers, government funding, and extracurricular activities in the public schools, I will detail both how the Supreme Court has largely torn down the wall of separation between church and state and how Atheists and other non-Christians have taken advantage of this post-separationist legal regime to participate in public life alongside the Christian majority.‡ I will also report on how the government and the Christian majority have responded to such demands by non-Christians. At times the response has been tolerant and even, occasionally, welcoming. But more often than not, the response has been distressingly hostile, ignorant, and hateful. Non-Christian displays have been torn down, invocations interrupted, requests for money met with disgust and hostility. Occasionally, the government has decided to exclude religion entirely from some public space rather than allow Christianity to share the stage with other religious and nonreligious views.

Most of my accounts and descriptions of events are drawn from public reporting, but I have also attempted, wherever possible, to travel and talk with key individuals and groups to learn as much as I could about their motivations. I watched an Atheist who had previously sued her town without success to stop it from allowing Christian prayers before its board meetings give a secular invocation in upstate New York, met with D.C.-area Wiccans who every Memorial Day hold small ceremonies at each of the eight graves marked with a Wiccan pentacle in the National Cemetery, and spent a weekend at a conference in Ohio learning about the movement to spread secular student groups on campuses around the country. I hung out with the quirky religious group called the Summum in its Utah pyramid filled with mummies and sat on the lap of a $100,000 bronze statue of a goat-headed figure named Baphomet that the Satanic Temple hopes someday to place on government property. In the course of my conversations and travels, I learned why Selena Fox and members of the Circle Sanctuary, her Wisconsin Wiccan community, felt so strongly about getting the Department of Veterans Affairs to allow those pentacles on National Cemetery graves. I traveled to Raleigh, North Carolina, to meet with Mussarut Jabeen, the principal of an Islamic elementary and middle school, about how school vouchers have helped her school thrive. And I spoke at length with Doug Mesner from the Satanic Temple about why his group believes it is crucial to demand equal access to government property and institutions. My goal in connecting with these people was always to learn why they fought to have their voices heard, how the fight affected them, and whether they think the fight was worth fighting. Their stories are surprising, fascinating, and inspiring.


Excerpted from the book “Our Non-Christian Nation” by Jay Wexler. Copyright 2019 by Jay Wexler. Reprinted with permission of Redwood Press. All rights reserved.


USA Today: “Challenging religious liberty in the public square could open the door to Satan. Good.” — “Satan has been having a hell of a year. Just two months ago, the IRS announced that it now recognizes the Satanic Temple (TST) as a bona fide religion, qualifying the Salem, Massachusetts, based organization for tax exempt status.

“In Penny Lane’s documentary ‘Hail Satan?’ (released in April) viewers learn how TST has challenged the Christian domination of public life in the United States. When government puts up a Ten Commandments monument on public property, TST might ask to put up its own goat-headed monument nearby. When government starts a legislative session with a Christian prayer, TST might apply to give a satanic invocation at a later session. When the Christian Evangelical Fellowship starts up a Good News Club to proselytize public elementary school students, TST might seek to introduce an After School Satan club in a classroom down the hall.

“The Satanic Temple deserves the attention and accolades that it has received for its efforts, but it is important to recognize that TST is not alone. Indeed, TST’s actions are part of a broader social movement brought about by two parallel developments of the past several decades:

“An increasingly conservative Supreme Court that has largely torn down the wall between church and state. For instance, in the past two decades, the Court has held that local town boards can start their meetings with prayers to Jesus Christ and required public schools opening up their classrooms for after-school activities to include religious groups that actively proselytize young children.

“A society that has become more and more religiously diverse.

“In this highly religiously pluralistic post-separation nation, a wide range of religious minorities, including Atheists, have started demanding their rightful place in public life alongside the Christian majority.”

Deseret News: “Sundance is showing a film about Satanists. What does it have to do with religious liberty?” — “In 2013, a new organization called the Satanic Temple mounted a press conference at the Florida State Capitol with a banner reading ‘Hail Satan! Hail Rick Scott!’ A man wearing horns and a black cape thanked the governor for signing a bill that allowed for student-led prayer in schools, which reaffirmed religious liberty and would allow America’s Satanic children to practice their faith openly.

“This is the first scene in director Penny Lane’s documentary ‘Hail Satan?,’ which premiered Friday at the Sundance Film Festival. It poses the question from the very start: what is this group really about?

“Even though most people say they know what Satanism is, they’re almost always wrong, said Lane. To start, she says, most modern Satanists don’t actually believe in Satan. But that doesn’t mean their religious practice is not sincere.

“The question for viewers is whether their religious practice is actually the practice of getting rid of religion in the public square.

“While some claim that Satanic Temple members are brave and creative champions of religious liberty, others are outraged because the group’s actions appear to be a diabolical assault on Christianity and an attempt to silence expressions of faith with media-savvy stunts.”

Washington Post: “A conservative Christian group is pushing Bible classes in public schools nationwide — and it’s working” — “Todd Steenbergen leads worship services in church sometimes, but today he was preaching in a different venue: the public-school classroom where he teaches.

“‘A lot of people will look at the Beatitudes and glean some wisdom from them,’ he told the roomful of students, pointing toward the famous blessings he had posted on the board, some of the best-known verses in the Bible. ‘I want you to think about what kind of wisdom we can get from these today.’

“While Steenbergen was urging students to draw lessons from the Bible here in southern Kentucky, students in Paducah — halfway across the state — were reading from the Gospels as well, in a classroom where they drew pictures of the cross and of Adam and Eve walking with dinosaurs, hanging them on the walls.

“Scenes of Bible classes in public school could become increasingly common across the United States if other states follow Kentucky’s lead in passing legislation that encourages high schools to teach the Bible.”

Allison Pohle produced this hour for broadcast.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.