Monday, December 2, 2013

One Nation, With a Passport Under G-d

The issue of putting G-d in our patriotic rites has long been debated, and even discussed on this blog before - along the lines of our money, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the Bible oath.  Each of these occurrences happen within the United States and can therefore be looked at as internal issues between various American identities.  But what happens when the collective American identity is labeled as theistic to the rest of the world?

That is what the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) has determined the government has done with the introduction of a new United States passport.  The debut of a new passport means the designs needed to be revamped, of course, but this time around the U.S. State Department decided to include some rather prominent quotes with theistic meanings.  Examples of such quotes include:
"May G-d continue the unity of our country as the railroad unites the two great oceans of the world." - inscribed on the Golden Spike, Promontory Point, 1869
"We have a great dream. It started way back in 1776, and G-d grant that America will be true to her dream." - Martin Luther King, Jr.
"This nation, under G-d, shall have a new birth of freedom." - Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln
"The G-d who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time." - the Jefferson Memorial, Thomas Jefferson
"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." - excerpt from the Declaration of Independence

To most this may seem like a non-issue, but there are many American citizens who do not identify as theistic, do not believe in solely one G-d, or do not wish to declare such views to others and the FFRF believes that the new passport violates the rights of those American citizens to have a separation between their church and state.  In selecting these specific quotes the state has not only established itself as a theistic entity, but a monotheistic one, effectively shutting out a large portion of the American "melting pot".  One argument is that many of the quoted have said other inspiring and important messages that do not mention G-d, so why couldn't the State Department have chosen those?

Others, however, are not so swayed by the FFRF's argument.  Many feel that the quotations on the passports represent America's history, and because they are quotes, it should be viewed as the state recognizing its past leaders and important moments, not necessarily establishing or endorsing a certain religious viewpoint.  Even the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) did not take issue with the new passport, viewing them as perfectly Constitutional.  Jordan Sekulow, ACLJ's executive director, said "the Establishment Clause [...] was not designed to prevent 'benign' references to G-d or faith from being made in government" and that these quotes are okay because they "endorse neither a specific faith nor a specific denomination".

Both sides present fair arguments that have me swaying between the two.  While I have never been a fan of the historical argument, I believe it may actually have some relevance to this situation, but I still feel that it is wrong to have the government declaring a monotheistic belief, as I have throughout previous discussions of this manner.  In addition, this document is not something you can opt out of if you do not agree with the material, like you could with the Pledge of Allegiance or the Bible Oath.  If you wish to leave the country and travel as an American citizen, you must present this document, quotes and all, to the customs agent in any and every country you visit.  It could potentially then be argued as a burden to someone's free exercise of his or her religion.

Personally, I believe that while these quotes undoubtedly play a role in our country's history, they are not necessary to have in our passports.  They add a nice touch, but could just as easily been replaced by quotes of equally historical precedence and American value that do not have theistic themes.

How do you feel?  Does this case differ from others that we have talked about?  If so, in what way?  Are the quotes enough to constitute an establishment of religion, or place a burden on free exercise?


Cori T said...

Like Tyler, I am caught between the two arguments. In the end though, I really do not feel like this is an establishment of religion and I feel that there is certainly a historical argument for the quotes. The quotes too are not random but do in fact reflect influential people, moments, and documents that were integral to America's history.
As Tyler pointed out in the intro, there are plenty of religious references on everyday items, so in this instance I feel as though until less benign examples are discussed that this is a non-issue.

Nicole D said...

I find this a clear violation of the establishment clause. It is as if the state sought out any historical quote with reference to God or to a creator. While I realize the historical significance of these quotes, I agree with Tyler that there are countless other historical quotes, from the same documents and said by the same people, that would have the same historical representation without mentioning God. I feel that these quotes were deliberately chosen because of their mention of God, which seems to me a violation of the Establishment Clause.

Kaela Diomede said...

I agree with both Nicole and Tyler in a sense that I think that the presence of these quotes is a violation of the Establishment clause. I think that in terms of our extensive history as American's, there are a number of other influential quotes that could have been used. Furthering what Tyler said, as an American citizen it is a bit more difficult to avoid getting a passport then to avoid the pledge of allegiance in a class room. I think that these quotes are unnecessary and could have easily be influence and non-theistic.

Maddie C. said...

I agree with Tyler that the religious quotes should not be included in the passports. They clearly endorse the belief in a theistic religion, and therefore should be removed as a violation of the Establishment Clause. Even though our country may have been built on many of these beliefs, the religious aspects do not have to be so overtly advertised through such a common document as the passport. The quotes should be replaced by more neutral ones to encompass the history of the country, regardless of religion.

Jennie M. said...

I can understand both sides of this debate. I do think there is merit in the argument that these quotes represent important moments in our nation's history. But they very much represent the history of the majority. While I think it is not an establishment for some quotes that mention God to be present in U.S. passports, I think an effort should be made to be as inclusive as possible when choosing what is included in the document, especially since there are no alternative to the traditional passport.

Maggie S. said...

I agree with Cori that there are so many other references on everyday things (like money) and that we have seen again and again instances where we might prefer more neutral language or the exclusion of God-language (like the pledge). But regardless of whether or not it should be there because of a risk of establishment, the United States seems to have a strong civil religion and has incorporated this type of language into various secular symbols and rituals, so I think if we're going to get rid of them on the passport then we have a lot of other things to change too.

Benjamin S said...

I think that the US state department could have pulled from a more diverse set of quotes when designing the passports, but I do not see it as a blatant establishment of religion. Like Maggie said, the word God shows up left and right throughout official US documents and monuments. Moreover, I agree with Cori in that I accept the historical argument here, these are actual quotes from US presidents and inscriptions from artifacts. With that said I still think with all the references to monotheistic religion we have, we don't need any more.

Mike Spear said...

I believe there the historical argument can provide an explanation for the use of God in passports. I do not see it to be blatant establishment, instead, it is a tradition that was likely around since the birth of US Passports. Granted, there are other more secular quotes from history that could be used, but I do not see this issue as one that undoubtedly confirms that the United States Government is in bed with religion.

Gabby D. said...

I think having references to god in the passports is an establishment of religion and therefore unconstitutional. Kaela had a very good point when she brought up that it is hard to avoid getting a passport, rather than avoiding something like saying the pledge. Therefore it seems that there is a coercive aspect here, imploring that if you want to be an American citizen and travel, you must be one that affirms these quotes and references to god. I understand that you can just turn your head and ignore it but I think that is cruelty to the minorities we have and value here in America.

SC said...

I think this is a blatant case of religious establishment. Kaela is correct that it is very difficult to avoid getting a passport, and the quotes can therefore be considered coercive. In addition, very many people could feel that their passport is misrepresenting them, and that they are being assigned viewpoints that they don't necessarily hold. I also think that the fact that we claim to be a country of many different religions, yet have religious quotes on our passports that clearly favor certain religions makes us as a country look hypocritical. Finally the assertion that the quotes "endorse neither a specific faith nor a specific denomination" is incorrect, because they clearly only apply to theistic religions and potentially even only to monotheistic religions. It looks to me like that United States still hasn't realized that not all religions necessarily believe in god.