Separation of church and state with President Obama

The American Prospect asks if President Obama acknowledged nonreligious Americans in his Inaugural Address will his administration re-separate church and state? Paul Waldman in his weekly column writes:

We know that Barack Obama is all about inclusion. Still, it was a little surprising to hear him give a nod in his Inaugural Address to a group that has been one of America’s most disdained, particularly when it comes to politics. “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and nonbelievers,” he said, no doubt bringing a smile to millions of faces around the country, and a scowl to millions more.

On faith based initiatives, he writes:

Obama has already said he wants to expand the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, which under Bush had become something of a slush fund for politically connected religious groups. But he also made clear, in a speech he gave in July, that in his administration, the office will “follow a few basic principles. First, if you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can’t discriminate against them — or against the people you hire — on the basis of their religion. Second, federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples, and mosques can only be used on secular programs.”

On the other hand, Waldman says there are religion and government issues that are not being addressed:

And there’s the rub. There are some things Obama can do that will be easy, like reversing the global gag rule (pro-lifers squawked, but everyone understood that they were just going through the motions). His real test will be on the things that will be hard, that will bring fevered opposition and threaten a wide backlash.

In 1943, the Supreme Court heard the case of West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, in which a group of young Jehovah’s Witnesses was suspended from public school for refusing to salute the American flag, which would have violated their religious beliefs. Writing for an 8-1 majority, Justice Robert Jackson made clear that the foundation of America is the idea that we all are free to believe what we wish, and even if our beliefs are not widely shared, it makes us no less American. “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation,” Jackson wrote, “it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” That is the American creed. We don’t yet know how hard the new administration will work to make it a reality.

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