Your Argument Is Invalid—Because It’s Not Very Good

Any organization that advocates for the separation of church and state can expect to get an earful from the public. When attorneys for groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Humanist Association, and my employer, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, remove coercive prayer from public schools and demand an end to the teaching of creationism, that always stirs up a certain segment of the population.

The emails, the phone calls, and the tweets come pouring in. Unfortunately, some of the arguments used by our opponents on the religious right just aren’t very good. I’m surprised some of these arguments are used at all because they are, to be frank, silly. I’d like to dissect five of these common (but bad) arguments here.

#1: Your group is in Washington, DC. Butt out of our business here in Anytown, USA! No, we will not butt out. When your public school system, city council, etc. is breaking the law, we have every right to step in. In fact, we have a duty to do so. And remember, every time a group like the AHA or Americans United (AU) intervenes in a local matter, we’re representing someone in the community who asked for our help. It would be reckless to step in without local folks behind us because if the matter goes to court, we’ll need those people to be our plaintiffs.

More importantly, if national organizations didn’t intervene in cases like this, citizens’ rights wouldn’t be protected. The average person doesn’t have the resources to fight a legal battle at the lowest rung of the courts, let alone all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. That’s one reason why groups like the AHA and AU exist—we give people those resources and legal firepower so they can defend their rights. Public school officials might simply ignore a letter from a parent who protests a church-state violation. I guarantee you they won’t ignore a letter or a lawsuit from a national organization.

Despite the paucity of this argument, it was put forth recently by no less than a member of the editorial board of the Cleveland Plain Dealer after Americans United halted the production of a religious opera at a public high school in Ohio. This gentleman told us to mind our own business. Actually, stopping unconstitutional activities is our business, but more to the point, do these people really believe “outsiders” have no role in helping people in other parts of the country? I’m glad that wasn’t the standard during the Civil Rights era.

#2: We’ve always done it this way. Ok, but now you’re going to stop doing it that way because what you’re doing is unconstitutional and/or illegal. “Tradition” is often nothing more than a sloppy justification for bad practices. For a long time, the “tradition” in the South was to buy and sell human beings. After that ended (by force, thanks to outsiders), “tradition” became an excuse to deny people the right to vote based on the color of their skin, subject them to humiliating forms of segregation, and occasionally murder them. These practices may have had a long lineage, but they were wrong so people (and again, this included many meddling outsiders from places like Washington, DC) stepped in and put a stop to them. (Of course, the end of Jim Crow laws was followed by a new form of systemic oppression we’re still contending with, i.e., mass incarceration, etc.)

#3: I had prayer in school, was taught creationism, and so on, and it didn’t hurt me. Well, bully for you. But your experience is not universal. In my travels around the country I’ve met plenty of people who were hurt by these practices—and, yes, that includes cases of physical assault and harassment.

Even if people were not subjected to violence, coercive religion in government-run institutions is still unconstitutional, and citizens have every right to oppose it, which includes challenging specific practices in court. It’s possible that a majority of people may not find the challenged practices problematic, but that’s irrelevant. In the United States an individual’s constitutional rights are not subject to majority veto.

#4: The First Amendment gives us the right to pray. You’re taking away our rights. Your rights remain intact. The First Amendment grants individuals the right to engage in prayer and other acts of worship as guided by conscience. It bestows no such right on units of government. In fact, the provision in the First Amendment barring laws “respecting an establishment of religion” curbs government-sponsored worship in settings such as public schools.

In short, you have every right to pray when and where you see fit. You have no right to use any arm of the government, such as the public school system, as a vehicle to impose your religion on others.

#5: We need to present both sides of the issue. We hear this one most often in the context of creationism, although it is sometimes raised during other church-state controversies (such as teaching “about” the Bible in schools). The claim has superficial appeal but collapses under even casual scrutiny.

Examining both sides of an issue only works when there is an actual controversy featuring two sides of equal merit, or in a case where not all of the facts have been gathered. In the case of evolution and creationism, there is no controversy and simply no more debate about the basics. The idea that the earth is anything but billions of years old has been thoroughly discredited, and the major assertions of fundamentalist creationism—which include human and dinosaur coexistence, the sudden appearance of species, and claims of a giant flood that, among other things, swiftly carved out the Grand Canyon—were long ago debunked. We do children no favors when we pretend there are controversies in settled science. In fact, we do them great harm by leaving them ill-equipped to understand modern biology.

Those are just five of the bad arguments. There are others. My wish is not that people would stop challenging groups like the AHA and Americans United—they have that right—but I’d like to see them bring better arguments to the table. Humanists enjoy an intellectual challenge. These pathetic arguments don’t even begin to provide that.