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Newton Campbell

SC 101-55

Professor Wendy Wiedenhoft

December 16, 2005

Public Displays of Religion

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” (U.S.

Constitution) These are the first ten words of the United States Bill of Rights. In recent

years, especially with the rise of religious extremist politicians into power, there have

been greater debates than ever on issues relating to the first amendment and the United

States’ policy of separation of church and state. These ten words have been fiercely

debated in an effort to reach a national consensus of what exactly the Framers of the

Constitution were trying to enforce by writing this. Some court cases that have risen out

of this debate include taking “Under God” out of the pledge of allegiance and taking “In

God We Trust” off of all US money. But the most recent cases about religion and the first

amendment have been the cases about taking Ten Commandments displays and other

religious symbols away from public and government buildings. More specifically, the

cases have been about taking these displays away from Court houses. These recent events

have left us with a question. Though it is historically important, does religion matter in

today’s society? With recent political events and elections, cases such as these are helping

to rip an already divided nation even further apart.

According to articles from, McCreary County vs. ACLU

Kentucky and Van Orden vs. Perry were the first cases of this year about this topic. In the
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case of McCreary County vs. ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Union sued two

Kentucky counties that posted readily visible copies of the Ten Commandments on

display. Displays posted around the Commandments include smaller, historical

documents that portrayed religious references in order to signify religion’s historical

importance on the creation of government. The District Court made reference to the

verdict of the Lemon vs. Kurtzman case in order to make their decision. After deciding

that the Ten Commandments are indeed a religious document and served no purpose on

the wall, the counties revised the exhibit. A new posting was created to replace the old

one and it was titled “The Foundations of American Law and Government Display.” This

new display consists of nine documents that are equal in size in order to seem equal in

importance. Therefore, the display will be viewed as secular. The display that shows the

Ten Commandments quotes them from the “King James Version” of the Christian Bible

and explains to all passers-by that this set of rules have had a very large amount of

influence on the formation of Western law and the Nation itself. Alongside the

Commandments are displays of the lyrics to the Star-Spangled Banner and the

Declaration of Independence, along with their own historical significance and legal

impact explained.

The other case that was argued alongside the McCreary County vs. ACLU case

was the Van Orden vs. Perry case. In this case, the issue being argued was whether a

monument of the Ten Commandments at the Texas State Capitol in Austin violated the

first Amendment. This monument was six feet high and three feet wide. It was donated to

the State of Texas by a civic organization called the Fraternal Order of Eagles. This

organization also paid for the cost of placing the monument on the public office grounds.
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The monument was actually placed between the State Capitol and State Supreme Court

buildings. This monument was one of seventeen monuments and twenty one historical

markers in this location. It was located somewhere around the middle of all of these

displays. After this case was heard, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth

Circuit declared that the monument as it was displayed was constitutional, on the grounds

that it contained both a religious and secular message. After this ruling was made, the

decision was then argued to the United States Supreme Court by a man named Erwin

Chemerinsky who argued on the behalf of Thomas Van Orden. The Court held the same

ruling, that the monument was constitutional. The vote by the court was extremely close,

turning out to be five to four. Ironically, the McCleary County vs. ACLU decision was

also argued on that day. Its verdict was changed to allow its displays, also turning out a

five to four vote.

Now, there are many valid points on both sides of these arguments. The main

argument of the people that would like to keep the monuments around is that each

monument portrays the religion’s specific reference to our culture. The reason that this

argument would have never even been doubted before is that religion has had such a great

impact on the world’s history. Religion has affected both believers and non-believers

alike. It has had a large, if not the largest impact, on the way that our world is being run

today. To deny this would be to simply deny history. Wars have been fought, people have

been slaughtered, and lives have been saved in the name of religion. Even today, the

impact of religion on the world is still great. This has come into realization with many

recent events. But these events did not only show the affect of religion on the world.

They showed how the world now responds to religion. Many recent tragedies and events
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have been surrounded by religion and, more specifically, Christianity. Most recently, we

have seen the affects of religion on the world with the death of Pope John Paul II. This

man’s death alone has directly affected the lives of one sixth of all mankind. Many

people, whether they were Catholic or not, were indirectly affected by this man. That is

why so many people came out to his funeral and to see his body on display in Rome last

spring. In doing things such as helping in the fight against communism, his position as a

religious leader greatly impacted the world. This shows how religion has a great societal

and secular impact. People who support these monuments realize that the displays shown

are undeniably religious, but also recognize that these rules have secular meaning.

The opposing argument is that allowing the monuments to stay is unconstitutional

and discriminates against anyone who is not a part of one of the three Abrahamic

Religions. Many of the people who support this argument have no religion and/or believe

that with all that we now know, we can create and have functional societies without

religion. Having these monuments signify that only one religion is “OK” to the US

government. These people, obviously, have been the prosecution in both of these

controversial cases. These cases leave us to question. Should religion, though it is not

officially a part of our government, be recognized as playing a major role in our society?

And furthermore, if our society is represented by a few specific religions, what happens

to those who are left out? This results in the tyranny of the majority. The lines that these

questions have drawn are so thin and yet, so incredibly significant.

Now, the sociological perspective of these cases and of religion itself is not as

concerned with beliefs and practices as it is with societal development. This perspective,

according to author Lester Kurtz, seems to make an effort to explain religion in terms of
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social forces rather than personal, psychological, or spiritual factors. (77) In both the East

and the West, religion and religious beliefs are at the core of every society. Very few, if

any at all societies have ever lived without religion or religions. This is because religion,

historically, has been used to express concepts and ideas that were fundamental to the

culture that followed or created them. It has played a major role to societies both

politically and therapeutically. To quote the “Think Twice” book, it is indeed “A Spiritual


What makes religion matter the most sociologically is probably its impact on the

individual. Religion makes an impact on the lives of individuals by making certain

guarantees. It helps the faithful, both religious and spiritual through the assurance of a

Supreme Being or Beings that are assured to motivate an individual through life. Religion

also gives an individual something to hope for after his or her life comes to an end. Even

though many religions are said to fear God or whoever their Supreme Being may be,

religions teach that this Supreme Being actually helps an individual to meet challenges

presented to them, despite the extent of these problems. It also helps us to be a

community. According to the book “Faith, Religion, and Theology”, “To be religious, to

experience God, naturally and necessarily puts us in contact with other people. We search

for and encounter the reality of the Ultimate together with others. Our personal faith

needs a community of faith.” Even though, with some religions, certain criteria must be

met, religion also offers acceptance for individuals into a group.

Religion can still have an impact on an individual even if that individual is atheist.

My manager at my internship is an atheist. One day, when we were eating lunch, I asked

him a question about his atheism. I asked him “If you are an atheist, where do you get
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your morals from? How did you develop a sense of right and wrong?” He responded “My

parents raised me as a Methodist. I guess that I get a lot of my morals from things that I

learned as a Methodist, the things that my parents taught me, and my own personal

decisions. I guess that I try to decide on what is right and wrong based on these three

factors.” (Personal Interview) The one thing that stuck out to me was when he said that he

grew up Methodist. I have seen this type of behavior in many atheists. Many atheists that

I have met do get their morals from religion. This can lead one to believe that nearly all

atheists get their morals from religion because their parents were religious. If their

parents were not religious than maybe their grandparents, great-grandparents, or other

ancestors were religious and each of them taught the morals that they learned from their

religions to their children. This is why religion is so great for the world. Scientism merely

has the ability to offer facts and many observations while religion truly affects

individuals, whether they believe in it or not, in the way that they live their lives.

Today, “the process of secularization and theoretical scientific developments has

weakened the influence of religion.” (Weber 200) But these things have not resulted in a

decline of religion, rather a decline of religious authority. And though there is less

influence and a decline in authority, religion is still playing its role in our government.

We live in a society that is theoretically governed by the people. In recent voting polls,

results show that voters consider the religious beliefs and faith of a candidate to be an

important factor in an election. The polls also show that, regardless of the religious

extremism of the current administration, most voters believe that religion should have an

even greater influence on government policies. Therefore, if voters have the power to

vote these people in, trying to take monuments away from the front of court houses seems
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small in comparison. Why worry about a piece of brick that means nothing to you when

someone’s daughter just got raped and can’t get an abortion because it’s illegal?

Religion from the sociological perspective has always been a refuge for societies

in times of crisis. As we have seen ourselves, it has been used as a tool of good in some

societies and a tool for evil in others. This confusion is why the question of where we

should put the dividing line between church and state still remains unanswered. While

these two court cases may have been resolved, there will be far more to come.

Does religion matter in today’s society? This is a question that can be answered in

many different ways. It makes a huge impact on the world, both negatively and

positively. It can be used as a powerful tool for good or evil. Religion makes an impact

on the way nearly every individual lives their life. It can be used as a great motivator for

those who have faith or, at times, those who do not. It matters because it makes a strong

effort to answer our ultimate questions. By answering these questions, religion helps

mankind in our quest for our ultimate meaning. We all want to know, whether religious or

not, why we are here because, by finding this ultimate meaning, we can determine our

destiny. To eliminate this would be to eliminate us.

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Works Cited

Fitts, Lowell. Personal Interview. December 5, 2005

Hill, Brennan Faith, Religion & Theology Twenty Third Pubns. 1997

Kurtz, Lester R. Gods in the Global Village: The World’s Religions in Sociological

Perspective Pine Forge Press: 1995

Weber, Max The Sociology of Religion Boston: Beacon Press 1922