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Supporting Civil Rights for Atheists and the Separation of Church and State
In the debate over “culture war” issues and state-church separation taking place in America today, we frequently hear a number of assertions from religious groups, and those who advocate a greater role for religion in public affairs:
- America is a Christian nation...
- The United States was founded upon Judeo Christian principles...
- The separation of state and church is a myth, with no basis in law...
These are not abstract, arcane arguments; rather, they are part of the political landscape throughout the United States today, as Christian fundamentalist movements seek to rationalize and advance their agenda, touching on issues as diverse as abortion rights, school prayer, government aid to religious schools, and much more. The "culture war" has divided families and entire communities, and in the process ignited intense debate over the very roots of American civilization.
One such skirmish in this “culture war” happened in the fall of 1997 in Charlotte, North Carolina. It mirrored events taking place elsewhere throughout the nation as churches and religious advocacy groups mobilized to have government bodies display copies of the Ten Commandments in public buildings. Much of this was in support of an Alabama county judge, Roy Moore, who had attracted national attention for his controversial policy of displaying a hand-carved plaque of the Decalogue in his courtroom, and beginning court proceedings with a Baptist invocation.
In Charlotte, an official on the City Council proposed that the Ten Commandments be displayed in the local government center. When informed by the municipal legal counsel that this was most likely unconstitutional, the council representative then proposed that the Commandments be part of a mural which would be paid for with donations, but still be displayed prominently at the same public location. In a series of heated meetings the proposal was debated and, as of this posting, rejected.
Supporters of the measure, though, justified their action by making a number of claims about American history. These included quotations attributed to Founding Fathers and other assertions from the historical record. Some of these have emerged as stock-in-trade misinformation which is circulated by various organizations. Critics charge that this “Christian revisionism,” a distortion of the historical record, is a shoddy cover for advancing a political and social agenda.
Members of American Atheists mobilized to oppose the display of the Ten Commandments in the Charlotte, N.C. Government Center. Part of that effort included a careful analysis of quotations and other claims which had been made by supporters of the proposal, including city representatives. Wayne Aiken, the N.C. State Director for American Atheists made those findings public at a media press conference.
The first part of this section, “Inaccurate Founding Father Quotes” is a transcript of some of the highlights from that public gathering in 1997. The second portion, “Separation of Church and State: A Rebuttal,” was crafted as a response to public officials and others in Charlotte who argued that the First Amendment had nothing whatsoever to do with the “wall of separation” mentioned by Thomas Jefferson. It is a more exhaustive treatment of the separation issue, and even deals with the questionable or false quotes used to defend the practice of displaying the Ten Commandments or other religious iconography in public venues.
This is not an excavation of all of the misquotes and suspect claims that have been made by individuals and groups supporting a greater role for religion in government. We hope to include more examples of that on this web site in the near future. It does, however, reflect how misinformation and a falsification of history were used to advance a religious -- and constitutionally suspect -- agenda in one American community. It happened in Charlotte... and it is happening elsewhere.