The US Constitution is Not Secular


In this blog I explain that a complete definition of secularism must include separation between State and religions.

Sommaire en français J’explique dans ce blogue qu’une définition complète de la laïcité doit forcément inclure le principe de séparation entre l’État et les religions.

Just a quick reminder to Americans, and many others, who seem to think that the US Constitution is a model of secularism. You are mistaken. It asserts religious neutrality, which is only one element of secularism. The First Amendment of the US Constitution, which established that

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”

is undoubtedly better than anything in Canadian federal legislation (the worst being the mention of the “supremacy of God” in the Canadian Constitution of 1982), but it does not implement secularism. As Shadia B. Drury pointed out in Free Inquiry, vol 32, #3:

“The establishment clause is not an endorsement of secularism but of nonsectarianism.”

What Drury calls nonsectarianism, I would call religious neutrality. It means that the state does not favour one religion over others; that there is no state religion. Very good so far. But secularism is much more than that. Secularism starts with religious neutrality and adds separation between religion and state, i.e. rejecting all religious interference in its affairs and legislation. That is, religion’s influence in politics and education is nonexistent. Secularism is universalist: the secular state refuses to recognize religions and treats all citizens equally, regardless of religious affiliation. It does not give religions any privileges and it does not accommodate religious practice.

Here is a good definition of secularism:

State secularism is based on the following principles:

  1. the separation between State and religions;
  2. the religious neutrality of the State;
  3. the equality of all citizens; and
  4. freedom of conscience.

The above definition is adapted from several sources: the Bouchard-Taylor Commission (Quebec, 2008), secular activist Daniel Baril, British humanist Andrew Copson (in his book Secularism) and the text of Quebec’s Draft Bill 21. Given the diversity of these sources, it represents a good consensus. The four sources differ somewhat in order and wording, but they all include principle (1) the separation between State and religions.

The First Amendment of the US Constitution says nothing about religion-State separation. It simply says that Congress cannot establish a State religion (hence, neutrality), nor can it interfere with the free exercise of religion. This means that nothing prevents religions from interfering in the affairs of State and government, as long as all religions are given equal opportunity to do so.

The principle of separation, however, goes much further and is necessary to protect the freedom of conscience of the citizenry. Its purpose is to prevent religious interference in the affairs of State and government. It means, for example, that the physical installations of the State and employees who represent the State may not display religious symbols, because that would expose users of public services and pupils in public schools to passive religious publicity, making them a captive audience.

Those who oppose any ban on religious symbols worn by public servants while on duty are thus opposing secularism. Such opponents often protest that any ban should apply only to physical installations (such as the walls of State institutions) and not to persons employed by the State, but they never give any cogent reason for accepting the former ban but not the latter.

Allowing public servants to wear religious (or political) symbols while working as representatives of the State means implicitly giving priority to the freedom of expression of employees over the freedom of conscience of the users of services, which is completely unjustified. Allowing the wearing of such symbols constitutes a religious privilege granted unfairly to those believers whose practice involves ostentatious display. It also constitutes discrimination against atheists, other non-believers and anyone else, including most believers, who do not adopt such exhibitionistic practices.

As for the users of public services, they are not representatives of the State and a ban on them wearing religious symbols would be unjustified. (However, face-coverings may be banned for other reasons, such as security, identification or communication, or because some face-coverings constitute a form of servitude of part of the population.)

The duty of public servants is to serve the users of public services, just as the duty of public school teachers is to educate their pupils. That is the reason for their employment. If there is any conflict between the freedoms of employees and the freedoms of users, clearly the latter should have priority. Furthermore, allowing religious symbols worn by representatives of the State amounts to religious interference in State institutions and is incompatible with secularism.

Next blog: The American Model of “Secularism” is 18th Century Pre-secularism

One thought on “The US Constitution is Not Secular”

  1. Well said! How would you write this blog in 2022 to address today’s NYT article about the permeability of individual justices of SCOTUS via their personal religious activities and associated friendships?

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