The Road to Secularism

This past Thursday, a federal court in Madison, Wisconsin ruled that the National Day of Prayer, held each year on the first Thursday in May, is unconstitutional. Originally submitted by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the case disputed the legality of a 1988 law that allows the President to issue a public proclamation that requests citizens to pray. Although the National Day of Prayer has been questioned before, such inquiry has never been to this great of an extent. The case is likely to be appealed in the coming weeks, and is also expected to make it to the Supreme Court despite President Obama’s plans to go through with the event this year. However, I am cautious to embrace the ruling made last Thursday. In a statement released by the adjudicating court, Judge Barbara Crabb justified her decision by characterizing the Day of Prayer as, “An inherently religious exercise that serves no secular function in this context.” And herein lies the fundamental flaw of this very controversial decision. The fact that the event may not serve a purely secular function is not immediate grounds for declaring it unconstitutional. After all, other national religious exercises are practiced legally in our country. The most prominent example is that of the Pledge of Allegiance, more specifically the line “One nation, under God…” Although this line, added in 1954, has been protested often, it still remains an official part of the Pledge, as the 2004 Supreme Court case Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow failed to remove it. Furthermore, when the President takes the Oath of Office he places his hand on the Bible, an unequivocal symbol of faith. In short, it is difficult to condemn a National Day of Prayer when we simultaneously maintain other fundamentally religious practices sanctioned by the government. In addition, if you look on the back of any bill in our currency system, you will find in bold letters the phrase, “In God We Trust.” Here arises another inherently religious aspect of our supposedly secular government. Therefore, Judge Crabb’s denunciation of the National Day of Prayer is slightly contradictory. For how can you criticize religious influence on the national level while ignoring the presence of the word “God” on our currency, which is arguably the symbol of our economy? Although the ruling may be slightly hypocritical in nature, it is a step in the right direction. The claim that abolishing the National Day of Prayer would weaken religious ties in our nation is not grounded in truth. As Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, President of the Interfaith Alliances, states, “Maintaining clear boundaries between religion and government only serves to strengthen both.” We have come a long way over the course of one hundred years, but there are still battles to be won in the fight for complete separation between church and state. And this secularization is equally important on our campus here at Phillips Academy. Our student body of over a thousand students holds a wide variety of religious beliefs including Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and many others. Atheism and agnosticism are equally prevalent. As an unaffiliated academic institution, we must respect all faiths without emphasizing one over the other. We must move beyond religious considerations for the purpose of immersing ourselves into the pursuit of knowledge. And in order to maintain an environment conducive to learning, the classroom becomes a completely secular realm. Only then can we move forward and thrive in a diverse and pluralistic Andover community. Jack Sykes is a new Lower from New York, NY.