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Activity 2: Separation of Church and State (25 minutes), Workshop 19: Atheism and Agnosticism—Not in Temples Made with Hands

In "Building Bridges," a Tapestry of Faith program

Materials for Activity

Preparation for Activity

  • Put money in shallow container.
  • Write the Lord's Prayer and Pledge of Allegiance on newsprint and post.

Description of Activity

Participants explore issues of separation of church and state.

Ask participants what they would think would be some of the top social or political issues for atheists in the United States. These include freedom of religion, freedom from religion, and, most importantly, separation of church and state. Ask youth if only atheists are concerned with separation of church and state. Participants will probably know that Unitarian Universalists and many other faiths, including both Christian and non-Christian, believe in enforcing this doctrine, too.

Share with the group that the first amendment to the United States Constitution states "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The two parts, known as the "establishment clause" and the "free exercise clause" respectively, form the textual basis for the Supreme Court's interpretations of the "separation of church and state."

Atheism has been granted protection as a religion under the law for purposes of freedom of religious expression and protection from religious persecution. It was established that not believing in a god or gods is a religious belief, and deserves equal protection under the law. Ask youth for responses to this.

However, Christian values and expressions were so dominant in the early days of the United States that they were interwoven throughout documents and practices largely without challenge. By the time the American atheist movement grew strong in the mid-twentieth century, these references had the force of 200 years of cultural habit, and opposing them was seen by many as un-American. Swearing on a Bible to be seated on a jury was not seen as a mixing of government and religion, but as a harmless act everyone should feel comfortable with. If you opposed the practice—and some faith traditions as well as atheists did—you could risk hateful, even violent, attack. This was the environment in which atheists pursued the separation of church and state in the United States.

Invite youth to choose a piece of money and examine it carefully. Do they see anything which might violate the doctrine of separation of church and state? When they mention "In God We Trust," share that this was not always on U.S. currency. The phrase first appeared during the Civil War, in 1864. Over a hundred years later, in 1956, the U.S. Congress made it the official motto of the United States.

Ask the youth if they are aware of some issues that have gone to court over separation of church and state. Record on newsprint. Some practices atheists and others have tried to end include:

  • Oath to take office or be seated on a jury; practice was changed from "swear" to "swear or affirm" ("I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God" has been modified for those who do not choose to use this language)
  • Requiring use of the Bible to take oaths
  • Ten Commandments publicly posted in courthouses
  • "In God We Trust" on U.S. currency
  • Pledge of Allegiance in schools and at public events because of the words "under God."
  • Removal of the words "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance—words that were added by Congress in 1954.
  • Prayer in schools, including reciting the Lord's Prayer and Bible readings
  • Prayers to open public gatherings, especially at governmental institutions
  • Crosses, pictures of Jesus, and other religious images in public buildings
  • Christmas Nativity scenes, other religious decorations on public property
  • Use of the National Mall in Washington, D.C. for religious services (for example, a mass by the Pope)
  • Political ads attacking an opponent for being atheist
  • Christmas as a federal holiday
  • Nonprofit, tax-exempt status for religious organizations.

Ask participants what they think of this list. Do they agree with all of these goals? Some of them? Why or why not?

Point out that these efforts to separate "church and state" has raised awareness of religious minorities and their rights, since often the presence of religion in the public sphere is Christian, and therefore impacts non-Christians, minority Christians, Muslims and Jews. Has it increased hostility in the public arena? Why or why not? Is it important to adapt to growing religious diversity in the United States? Why or why not?

Share that the landmark Supreme Court ruling that banned prayer in public schools was in 1963, but the Lord's Prayer was very commonly used in public schools, especially in the southern United States, until the mid 1970s. Refer to the newsprint with The Lord's Prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. Ask if any youth ever recited the Lord's Prayer in school. Share whether you had this experience in school. Note that the Pledge of Allegiance did not always have the words "under God"; they were added by Congress in 1954. Challenges to remove the words have so far been unsuccessful. Invite participants to recite the Pledge without the words "under God." Ask if they like it better, or not as much. Why?

Share that the issue of prayer in schools is still being fought: new lawsuits are filed on both sides every year. What are participants' thoughts about this?

For more information contact web@uua.org.

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Last updated on Friday, November 15, 2013.

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