LaGrange Humanists
Reason & Compassion without gods
Essay Contest


Congratulations to Julie Henderson of Kennesaw State University
, winner of the LaGrange Humanists' 2012 Essay Contest.

Here is Julie's winning entry:

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States and Its Implications for Humanism in 21st century America

By Julie Henderson, Kennesaw State University

In regards to the Constitution of the United States of America there is much discussion and concern over the Founders’ “original intent.” In the examination of the Establishment Clause and its implications for Humanism in the 21st century, the idea of original intent is paradoxically both relevant and inconsequential at the same time. Original intent is relevant because of the evidence that the Framers revered freedom of conscience. It is also relevant because the language used in the Establishment Clause is purposely neutral. Had the authors meant to specifically prevent only sects of Christianity from becoming entangled with the government, they could have chosen language that indicated that exact purpose (Koppelman 2009). The dogmatic belief system behind the Framers’ original intent is immaterial because the evolution of American society has made it so. What matters most to Humanism right now is whether the government chooses to take an accommodationist view in regards to Establishment, or a separationist view, and whether Humanists are willing to defend their own religious liberties.

As far as I can tell, nearly every discussion of the Framers’ original intent in relation to the Establishment Clause includes an analysis of James Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments; this is because the document clearly articulates Madison’s belief that established religion threatens “the stability of the civil society,” corrupts the established religion, and discriminates against “those who do not share the established religion's beliefs” (Corbin 2012). However, despite the assertion of these principles, many concentrate on the fact that the document also demonstrates Madison’s devotion to his own religious faith, which those who take an accommodationist stance to the Establishment Clause tend to translate as an endorsement for religion and a position against nonbelievers. This is unfortunate because the language of the Constitution and the procedures put into it for amendment exhibit the Founders’ desire to create a living document, one whose ideals could grow and change with the citizenry.

Judges, justices, legislators, and citizens who maintain that America was founded to be an orthodox Christian nation with orthodox Christian values either miss or choose to ignore the other policies that the Founders adhered to that are considered incongruous with the cherished ideals that we recognize in our Constitution today. The policy of enslaving other humans and inflicting them with a badge of inferiority was normative, and even endorsed by religion at the time of the Founding. Additionally, citing the incompetence of women, the denials of their natural rights were considered appropriate. These practices and other traditions that were acceptable at the time when the Constitution was drafted and beyond are now widely understood to be inconsistent with equality and natural right.

The Framers lived in a time when the American society was mostly homogenous, and certainly political power belonged only to those who were deemed worthy. As our nation has matured, become more diverse, and attained more consistent inclusion of its people, the challenge to respect all citizens’ religious beliefs, or lack thereof, equally, has become tougher. In light of this, it only makes sense that separation between church and state requires greater diligence. Thus, the separationist view that was predicated by Thomas Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists has the greatest implication for Humanists in the 21st century. The government is obligated by the Establishment Clause to remain a disinterested party in the affairs of religion. Yet, like the fight for equality in other categories, the fight for religious equality can be rife with passion and irrationality.

If Humanists are to change the consensus among the majority of Americans (for which there is much empirical data) that nonbelievers are immoral, untrustworthy, and unpatriotic, we must take a stand against policies that further the belief that morality is exclusively tied to religion. We must work to remove systematic discrimination against nonbelievers from our society. And we must insist upon our belief in the values of this country; that we all have the universal right to freedom of, or from, religion; we have the right to liberty, we are committed to justice, and we believe that the happiness created by being ethical is not tied to a god but to reason and humanity. The Establishment Clause quashes those who would like to use the law to deny us these beliefs, but with diligence, commitment, and perseverance, 21st century Humanists can prevail in our fight for acceptance, inclusion, and freedom from relativist judgment.


Corbin, Caroline M. 2012. "Nonbelievers and Government Speech." Iowa Law Review 97(2):347-415.

Davis, Derek,. 1991. "Original Intent : Chief Justice Rehnquist and the Course of American Church-State Relations.":xix, 202.

Eisgruber, Christopher L. and Lawrence G. Sager. 2007. "Religious Freedom and the Constitution /.":333.

Goldwin, Robert A., and Art Kaufman. c1987. "How does the Constitution Protect Religious Freedom? /.":xv, 175.

Koppelman, Andrew. 2009. "Original Ideas on Originalism: Phony Originalism and the Establishment Clause." Northwestern University Law Review 103:727.

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