The First Amendment and democracy – Wilson Melon

FFRF awarded Wilson a $2,000 scholarship. 

Religion and American politics are thoroughly intertwined. There even exists within the electorate a pervasive belief that the accomplishments and the very existence of the United States are more attributable to providence than to humanistic achievement.

This idea, along with a faith in the infallibility of a divine being, often leads to public policy informed more by religious interpretations than reasoned debate.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified over 220 years ago: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

We can either accept its modern relevance and explicit dogma as articles of faith, or we can question how its concepts should apply to the present and be adjusted for current values while allowing for future change. In this way, the Constitution necessarily draws us into choices between faith and reason.

Originalists imply that the righteousness of their legal interpretations emanates from their ability to divine immutable and incontrovertible religious values in our Constitution. These individuals disregard the Establishment Clause and seek to interpret law in a manner that promotes faith-based principles and practices. Such unsound circular jurisprudence paradoxically seeks to find justification for desired religious outcomes while asserting original intent.

In the Supreme Court, several modern-era appointees have supported blending religion and politics. Evidence of this abounds. William Rehnquist, in Wallace v. Jaffree, a school prayer case, argued against a Jeffersonian wall between church and state.

Similarly, in his speech to the Catholic Knights of Columbus, Antonin Scalia criticized the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals for allegedly attempting to excise God from public life in Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, a case about requiring students pledging allegiance to the United States “under God.”

When this case reached the Supreme Court, Rehnquist argued that references to a monotheistic God in the pledge, on federal currency, on government buildings and elsewhere do not violate the Establishment Clause. He claimed that it is permissible for government institutions to declare the existence of God, especially if they do not favor a specific denomination.

In that same case, Clarence Thomas even suggested that the Establishment Clause was merely a protection against federal interference in the religious affairs of states and that it neither guarantees rights for individuals nor should it be incorporated at the state level. 

These few examples demonstrate a larger trend within part of the judiciary to undermine the Establishment Clause. As lifelong appointees, Supreme Court justices exert a tremendous influence over the trajectory of American society.

For this reason, jurists should interpret the Establishment Clause broadly, thereby circumscribing faith to the private sphere where it can be practiced freely. In this way, the freedom of thought of all Americans would be protected from the religious predispositions of merely nine judges.

Separating religion from government is appropriate for all three branches of government. In the recent past, there’s been a resurgence of religious zeal across the political landscape.

In the recent Republican presidential primary, religiously charged social issues were brought to the fore. Each candidate who led in the polls took great pains to proclaim his or her religious fervor and scripturally-based opposition to aspects of gay marriage, abortion and contraception.

Similarly, congressional and state legislators have, of late, made ostentatious attempts to publicly defund the health care provider Planned Parenthood on the basis of religious opposition to family planning.

In Mississippi, legislators theologically opposed to abortion have foisted restrictions upon the last remaining in-state clinic in an effort to circumvent protections acknowledged since Roe v. Wade.

With regard to the Affordable Care Act, the Catholic Church’s public criticism of the employer requirement for contraceptive coverage riders led the Obama administration to make exemptions for religious denominations. Concessions to mollify religious critics disenfranchised employees who do not subscribe to the same theology as their employers.

Support of teaching intelligent design in public schools and opposition to the teaching about evolution, obstruction of stem cell research, taxpayer-funded subsidies and vouchers for parochial schools and their students, and tax and employment nondiscrimination exemptions for religious groups are a few examples of religion’s heavy hand.

Despite what is enunciated in Article VI of the Constitution, even presidential elections are thoroughly subjected to religious influence. During the 2008 presidential primary, the accusations that then-Senator Obama was a Muslim underscored the de facto requirement by part of the electorate that American presidents share their Christian faith.


Democratic government must protect each individual’s freedom of thought. Government must not promote theism, be it denominational or not. Theocracies are inherently anti-democratic because they demand faith in divine infallibility and endeavor to impose unquestionable religious beliefs and policies.

In contrast, our federalized republic is best served by its citizens voting for elected representatives on the basis of reasoned and informed debate. Both secular and religious values can be components of deliberations regarding policy, but their merits must be justifiable on the basis of logic, not blind trust.

Thoughtful, nuanced, nondogmatic debate is most suited for selecting officeholders and for creating sound public policy that balances preservation of personal choice with protection of secular values that citizens arrive at through careful consideration.

For freedom of thought to flourish in the U.S., belief and nonbelief must be protected by the government. Politics must be shielded from the influence of religion. To achieve this, we must elect individuals dedicated to disentangling religion from politics.


Wilson Melón, 27, was born in Concord, Mass. He’s a Ph.D. student in Spanish literature at Purdue University. He earned a B.A. in Spanish and French at Middlebury College, Vermont, and an M.A. in Hispanic literature at Boston College.

Freedom From Religion Foundation