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The Dangerous Fallacy of Ceremonial Deism

In disputes over church-state separation, "ceremonial deism" has become a legal doctrine heavily relied upon by those who wish to defend governmental religiosity. Though the concept has been around for decades, ceremonial deism has been seen with increasing frequency since 2004, when it was used in a concurring opinion by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor to uphold the "under God" wording of the Pledge of Allegiance.

Ceremonial deism refers to certain governmental religious expressions, such as the Pledge wording and the national motto of In God We Trust, that defenders claim do not violate the Establishment Clause "wall of separation" between church and state. Justice William Brennan, who in 1984 was the first high court justice to refer to “ceremonial deism” in a written opinion, explained that the term covers religious references that "have lost through rote repetition any significant religious content." In other words, although the expression may appear religious, it is harmless because it is understood as having no religious meaning.

The idea of an umbrella term for harmless governmental religious references might have some appeal, but use of the term "ceremonial deism" for that purpose is grossly inaccurate and even dangerous. In the real world, genuinely discriminatory governmental actions often escape scrutiny, partly because they are shielded by the euphemism of "ceremonial deism."

The presumption underlying many religious actions that are defended by the ceremonial deism argument – that the actions are harmless – is demonstrably incorrect. Exhibit one in this regard is a Cranston, Rhode Island, high school student named Jessica Ahlquist, who became the target of threats and bullying when she objected to a prayer banner in her high school last year. Even though her objections had nothing to do with the Pledge of Allegiance, students in her school soon used the "under God" wording of the Pledge as a weapon against her.

Specifically, during classroom recitation of the Pledge, students turned to face Ahlquist at the appropriate time, then shouted "under God!" at her. Thus, in the minds of these students, “rote repetition” of the Pledge – no doubt a daily exercise for many years – had not caused the words “under God” to lose their "significant religious content." On the contrary, regular repitition had instilled a fierce sense that religiosity is synonymous with patriotism, an understanding that true patriots must believe in God.

Even outside Jessica’s classroom, videos have surfaced showing the good people of Cranston, Rhode Island, emphasizing the "under God" wording during recitation of the Pledge at public meetings where the prayer banner was to be debated. Harmless ceremonial deism, indeed.

There may very well be some references to God in the public arena that are truly harmless. Religious references in art or in architecture, for example, can be portrayed in a way that does not suggest governmental endorsement of a theological viewpoint, especially when they are presented in a manner that allows other ideas and images to be portrayed as well. Such references, however, should be accurately labeled as "harmless governmental references to religion" and not "ceremonial deism," a term that is misleading on several levels.

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