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Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars gives us the scoop on a California school district which voted to display posters declaring “In God We Trust” in every classroom in the district. Although one board member called the display a way of “promoting patriotism”, a different quote indicates what the real intention is here:

The classroom displays were first suggested by the non-profit group In God We Trust — America Inc., whose president, Jacquie Sullivan, is a Bakersfield councilwoman.

“I encouraged the trustees to put this on the agenda,” she said. “It’s very important. We need to promote patriotism and promote it in our schools. We can’t just assume that the younger generations are going to have that strong love for God and their country the way the older generations do.”

…The councilwoman, who said she is a registered Republican and a Christian who attends a local Baptist church, told that she has neither a religious nor political agenda in pushing for the measure.

Aside from the ignorance this quote shows (teaching “the love of God” is not the job of the public schools, nor of any other arm of government), it makes it obvious that the intent is to indoctrinate children into believing in God in the way the measure’s backers would like. I doubt it will work (since when did a poster on a classroom wall affect any student’s deeply held personal beliefs?), but it is the intent that’s most important, not the effect.

Granted, several equally obvious violations have been upheld by the courts before. When Michael Newdow appeared before the Supreme Court in 2004, several justices suggested that the concept of “ceremonial deism” could encompass the religious language in the Pledge of Allegiance and shelter it from legal challenge. Justice O’Connor’s eventual concurring opinion in that case repeated this claim. Under this doctrine, a court can hold that religious language is not really religious at all, but merely “ceremonial” and not unconstitutional. Typically, this legal theory is applied when a court wants to find a way out of having to enforce the First Amendment against a widely practiced or long-overlooked constitutional violation.

The idea of “ceremonial deism” ties into this recent story about Mitt Romney’s rocky road in the U.S. presidential campaign, and the difficulties he faces in winning over evangelical voters who are suspicious of his Mormon beliefs.

“We need more injection of an understanding of God in our political life,” said Roy Moore, the former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court and a potential third-party, anti-abortion presidential candidate. “I am looking for a candidate that understands that this nation is established on a particular God.”

As always when hearing Roy Moore speak, I remain amazed that someone so outrageously ignorant about the Constitution could ever have been elected to statewide office. But in this instance, in his unofficial role as the id of the religious right, Moore has done a valuable service. He’s made perfectly clear what many religious right leaders seek to downplay and conceal: the religious references they seek to insert, and have inserted, into government speech are not to some vague, ecumenical deist spirit; they are to the god of the Christian religion and the Christian Bible. The religious right may make token noises about inclusiveness when they think the courts are watching – but when people take them at their word and seek equal access for beliefs differing from their own, they invariably go ballistic.

Last May, for instance, right-wing Christians sued for the right to distribute their literature through the Albemarle County, Virginia public schools. But when a secular group, Camp Quest, decided to use the open access thus gained for the same purpose, many of those same right-wing groups erupted in rage, bemoaning how those poor teachers might have to hand out literature to their students which the teachers did not agree with.

Or take the Tampa city council, which had traditionally opened its meetings with prayer. No one complained when this invocation was used for highly inappropriate sectarian sermonizing by, say, ministers who went on tirades against abortion. But when an atheist gave the invocation, half the council stormed out in a huff. One local radio host said, “To allow an atheist the opportunity for an invocation lowers the standards of what an invocation is.” Another resident called the atheist invocation “Satan gaining another foothold”.

There’s also the National Day of Prayer (yes, America has one), which would have been bad enough by itself. But worse, in practice this event has been thoroughly coopted by far-right Christian groups which promote Christianity exclusively, and do not invite members of any other religion to their “official” National Day of Prayer events.

And how could I forget Rajan Zed? The first Hindu priest ever to give the invocation opening a session of the Senate, he was immediately interrupted by a pack of screaming bigots who yelled that his religion was “wicked” and “an abomination”.

It may well be that America’s founders envisioned a sort of shared civic religion that was non-sectarian and founded on a recognition of the moral precepts that all faiths have in common. If the separation of church and state were otherwise guaranteed, I could probably live with government leaders making pronouncements in this vein. But this dogma-free, rationalist religion has been hijacked by Christian zealots who think that civic religion means their religion, and no one else’s, and who are willing to push for that theocratic vision to be enshrined into law. Against this host of intolerance, we freethinkers must insist on a total separation of religion from government – because otherwise the extremists still assaulting America’s Constitution will seize on the slightest crack and attempt to wedge their beliefs in.

UPDATE: One more example that’s too perfect to pass up. Via Ed Brayton, we learn that Pat Robertson’s legal group, the American Center for Law and Justice, which in the past has defended the placement of Christian monuments on public property, is now representing a city arguing that they should not have to give the same accommodation to Summum, a fringe religious group that wants to put up a monument in a park where the Ten Commandments are already present.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...