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Do You Really Know What The Consitution Says About Religion And Politics?

Even before the First Amendment, the United States Constitution contained a strong statement about the role religion should play in selecting officials at every level of government.

In some ways, this has already been a remarkable Presidential campaign. Although evangelical Protestants make up a large percentage of the Republican Party, they have been campaigning and voting for primary candidates who are Mormons and Catholics with almost no mention of religion as an issue.

For those of us who remember when John F. Kennedy ran for President, the reaction of the Republicans in 2012 is truly amazing.  The fact that Kennedy was Catholic was a major issue in 1960.

While Americans seem to be increasingly comfortable with electing a President who is not a mainstream Protestant, voters still seem to require that the candidate be some kind of Christian.

Some voters openly admit that they require the President be a Christian.  Many base this on the claim that the United States was founded as a “Christian nation.”  It is undeniable that many of the Founding Fathers were indeed devout Christians, but it is also true that many of them were not. 

In fact, when you look at the first five Presidents of the United States, not one of them was a mainstream Christian.  George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison and James Monroe were all either Theists or Deists, men who believed in some higher power, but not in the Jehovah of Christianity.

It is also worth noting that the Founding Fathers specifically avoided mentioning any specific god in the Declaration of Independence.  The Declaration refers only to a higher power, saying that “all men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights . . . “

The Constitution makes it clear that the Founding Fathers intended to separate religion and politics.  Almost everyone is familiar with the First Amendment, which guarantees individual religious freedom.

But few people know that the Constitution also specifically bars the government from using religion as a requirement for public service. Article VI, paragraph 3 of the Constitution states that all public officials may be required to swear or affirm that they will support the Constitution, but:

       “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any
         office or public trust under the United States.”

Based on this exceptionally clear language, a government official cannot be required to belong to a particular religion; indeed, he cannot be required to belong to any religion at all.

Over the years, several states have attempted to evade this prohibition by writing religious tests into their state constitutions.  For example, the Arkansas Constitution states:

       “No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in
        the civil departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as
        a w itness in any Court.”

In every case, the United States Supreme Court has ruled that such requirements cannot be enforced.  However, such laws are still on the books in at least six states.

Of course, some voters will continue to enforce their own religious tests when they cast their votes, no matter what the law says. Based on the results from this year’s Republican primaries, though, religion seems to be fading as a major campaign issue. I think the Founding Fathers would approve.

Have a question or a suggestion for a topic?
Email Dennis at dspirgen@SpirgenLawFirm.com.

Patch posts are general discussions and should not be used as advice on any specific legal matter.  If you need legal advice on a particular situation, please consult an attorney.

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Peter Grossetti April 19, 2012 at 12:55 PM
the Arkansas Constitution states: “No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as a w itness in any Court.” Just wondering if the Arkansas Consitutuion attempts to define "a God." I also find it intersting that the term they chose to use is "a God" rather than "God."
James Thomas April 19, 2012 at 01:47 PM
Most Americans are aware that "The Constitution makes it clear that the Founding Fathers intended to separate religion and politics." Not many seem to understand that it works two ways. Religion is barred as a requirement of public service and the government is barred, absolutely from passing any laws that infringe on religious freedom. The determining factor here is who gets to say what infringes on religious freedom? I suggest that it is the religious community which gets to pronounce on this subject and that the government is required to abide by that opinion.
Peter Grossetti April 20, 2012 at 12:38 AM
"it is the religious community which gets to pronounce on this subject" 1.) WHICH religion? Christianity? Islam? Hinduism? Buddhism? Sikhism? Judaism? Baha'i? Jainism? Shinto? Paganism? Satanism? Unitarian-Universalism? Rastafarianism? Scientology? 2.) What about those of us who are Secular/Nonreligious/Agnostic/Atheist??? "the government is required to abide by that opinion." In America, The People are the Government
Carolyn Watts April 20, 2012 at 01:49 AM
What I'd like to know is how religions who meddle in politics and are big money making ventures are tax exempt. They use government services and should pay taxes.
Peter Grossetti April 20, 2012 at 12:09 PM
Carolyn - "religions" aren't tax exempt, but "religious organizations" are. "how religions who meddle in politics and are big money making ventures are tax exempt?" Simple ... they are tax exempt because they meet certain criteria as set forth in section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. (which is US law). As with any law, if you feel that is unjust or improper, you may want to work with your US Senator and Representative to get it changed.
Jack Kelly April 20, 2012 at 02:04 PM
If a religious community feels their religious FREEDOM (key word) is being stepped on, then they can take it to the proper court of jurisdiction, and have it decided accordingly. What their "opinion' (or "belief") is is irrelevant. There's been a lot of people/groups claiming their "religious freedoms" have been stepped on recently, when what they've actually done is shown their ignorance in what they're screaming about, their selfishness (thinking that they can do whatever the hell they want, as usual), their misconstruing it to fit their argument, or all of the above. I'd say it's the latter. Those same religious people/groups also love to invoke religion/put their nose into issues that are none of their business either. The government -- nor is anyone -- "required" to abide by their "opinion." I'd also argue that most Americans know NOTHING of the Constitution (outside of it existing). They prove it regularly when they cite something that has no relevance or misconstrued to fit their 'belief.' If I had a dollar for every time someone claimed "freedom of speech" when it wasn't relevant, I'd be in that "1%".
Valerie Middleton Winter April 20, 2012 at 05:12 PM
Actually, a documentary was just released addressing this issue. https://www.facebook.com/#!/monumentalmovie Check it out.
Mary Jo Stack April 20, 2012 at 05:57 PM
Really? a Kirk Cameron movie? Please!
Dennis Spirgen April 21, 2012 at 02:23 AM
When a religious organization steps outside the bounds of religion and starts engaging in politics or business, it may not be tax exempt. The Crystal Cathedral in California got in big trouble with the IRS in the 1990's when it came to light that the church was making most of its money from a full service restaurant (on church grounds) and from a full slate of religiously themed theatrical productions. Other "churches" have lost their tax exempt status for being primarily political organizing groups.
Damon koch April 21, 2012 at 01:30 PM
The founding fathers intended this country to be a Christain nation with a secular government. This is clear from their writings. Madison wrote that the only way the Constitution could work is if it was followed by religious people. The Constitution is based on two main freedoms, i.e. religious and economic.
Tim Torrence April 21, 2012 at 06:10 PM
The Constitution certainly bars the government from designating a state religion through the first amendment, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof". And I know Jefferson used the "wall" analogy to set the precedent for separation of church and state. But the fact remains that our Constitution is a contract between the citizens of this country and our government that states what the government can and cannot do to a citizen's life, liberty or property. It does not state the reverse and demand that the citizen keep their religious beliefs out of their voting preferences. So in essence it is not a "wall" that should be built to keep religion and governments separate but more of an osmosis barrier that allows individuals to influence government policy through their own personal values whether that be a Judeo-Christian background or an atheist background. And if Mormons can act as a voting block in Utah and advance their agenda then so can an atheist voting block in say, Vermont.
John Gwinn April 23, 2012 at 09:41 PM
I like the idea of an osmosis barrier. Now that diverse, mainstream religious groups are holding hands with the Republicans doesn't that suggest that race is a more important issue than religious differences among these good people? Jus' sayin'
Tim Torrence April 24, 2012 at 06:11 AM
John I fail to see the validity of your argument. What does race have anything to do with the blog post or my comment? But it is good you see the diversity of the Republican party. I'm sure that was not even close to what you were trying to say.

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