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Chris Nelson: A secular history lesson for Constitution Day

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This op-ed first ran on Sept. 17 (Constitution Day) in the Birmingham News. 

By Chris Nelson

As we observe the 235th anniversary of Constitution Day, public schools across the nation are required to educate students on America’s founding document. Unfortunately, this year, the adults on the Supreme Court are most in need of a constitutional lesson.

On Sept. 17, 1787, delegates to the Constitutional Convention gathered in Philadelphia to sign a document that would become the world’s first secular Constitution. Until then, world rulers reigned hand in hand with priests and holy men, conducting crusades and persecuting religious minorities in the name of divine justice.

Thankfully, our Founders, while far from perfect, were the Enlightenment thinkers of their era. In line with “No taxation without representation,” they believed that compelling citizens to support a faith they did not follow violated their liberty.

Thus, they created a uniquely secular Constitution. They removed the power from those kings and holy men and instead gave it to “We the People.” The Constitution promised those fleeing persecution around the world freedom of religion through a new government that would be free from religion.

“[The Constitution] gives the president no particle of spiritual jurisdiction,” wrote Alexander Hamilton.

“State and church will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together,” added James Madison.

Sadly, a group of conservative justices recently began reuniting religion and government in an unholy matrimony not seen since the days of King George III. Over the summer, the high court ruled in favor of tax dollars for private religious schools, prayer during school football games, and against a woman’s right to choose.

These rulings surely left our Founders rolling in their graves.

In 1791, they ratified the First Amendment to the Constitution, stating “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” known as the Establishment Clause.

Thomas Jefferson, in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, declared that when the American people adopted the Establishment Clause, they built a “wall of separation between church and state.”

Today, this wall is crumbling at the feet of those Supreme Court justices and powerful theocratic advocates who believe America was founded as a “Christian nation.” This does not represent the intention of our Founders or even the demographics of our nation.

In the early years, Americans were overwhelmingly Protestant, with Catholics making up the second major demographic, but much has changed in the nearly 250 years since. A major shift away from religion in the millennial generation has led to 29 percent of Americans now identifying as having “no religion,” according to Pew Research. This makes secular Americans the largest single “religious denomination” in our country for the first time.

In Shelby County, 15 percent of the population identifies as religiously unaffiliated, according to PRRI Research. I’m proud to count myself as one of the more than 75 million secular Americans who are not religious. Furthermore, I’m thankful for groups like the Freedom from Religion Foundation, which has been fighting to protect our cherished separation of church and state.

Last year, my wife and I signed on as plaintiffs in a FFRF lawsuit against the state of Alabama challenging its unconstitutional voter registration requirements. Previously, Alabama residents were required to sign an oath to God in order to register to vote. Following the lawsuit, the secretary of state amended all forms to include a checkbox for those who wish to opt out of the religious oath.

Now all Alabamians are worthy of the same voter rights regardless of their religious (or non-religious) beliefs.

“I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind,” states Thomas Jefferson’s memorial in Washington, D.C. “As new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change . . . institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times.”

This Constitution Day, let’s keep educating our students, friends, neighbors and leaders on our uniquely secular Constitution. Because more than two centuries after our Founders met in Philadelphia, we must again reaffirm our commitment to keep religion out of government.

There is no freedom of religion without a government that is free from religion.

FFRF Member Chris Nelson is a lifelong Alabamian and secular activist.