The Ten Commandments, which were guiding principles for many of the Founding Fathers who framed the U.S. Constitution, are now being labeled unconstitutional by a leading atheism advocacy organization. That rather bizarre claim in an Oklahoma City lawsuit exemplifies the growing ferocity of attacks by atheist groups and individuals across the country against public expressions of Christianity, especially in government and community settings.
Just as prayer was removed from public schools in the early 1960s on the basis of the separation of church and state, another landmark case is before the Supreme Court that threatens to outlaw prayer before government and civic meetings.
All over the nation, dozens of lawsuits and legal threats have aimed at removing crosses and Bibles from public places. A high school football coach in North Carolina was forced to stop praying with and baptizing some of his players, even though the activity occurred primarily at church.
Atheist groups are also vigorously trying to strip churches and pastors of tax exemptions.
And in one of the most visually prominent examples to date, an organization called American Atheists erected a billboard in New York City’s Times Square during the 2013 Christmas season that posed the question, “Who needs Christ during Christmas?” The name of Christ was crossed through, and the question was answered: “Nobody.”
Internationally noted Christian journalist and author David Aikman said there’s been a steady acceleration of anti-Christian activity by atheist groups over the past five years and that believers must rise up to stop the momentum.
“It’s a constant threat,” said Aikman, author of The Delusion of Disbelief: Why the New Atheism Is a Threat to Your Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness. “Christians have got to defend themselves against these proposed restrictions on First Amendment principles.”
The First Amendment right of freedom of religion is front and center in the Oklahoma City lawsuit filed by American Atheists in an attempt to have a Ten Commandments monument removed from the grounds of the state capitol.
The monument is deemed religiously offensive by the plaintiffs, who charge that most of the commandments—except those prohibiting crimes such as murder and stealing—would be unconstitutional if they were part of Oklahoma law.
For example, the lawsuit says the prohibition against taking the Lord’s name in vain is a violation of free speech, the command to remember the Sabbath is an “invasion of the mind,” and the order against coveting creates a “thought crime.”
U.S. Congressman Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), a devout evangelical, sharply criticized those legal claims being made in his home state.
“The question of the constitutionality of the Ten Commandments is ludicrous,” he told Decision. “People who believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob try to adhere to the Commandments. … No one is trying to make them the law of the state of Oklahoma.
“The monument on the state capitol grounds is an artistic expression that reminds people of the Judeo-Christian heritage of the state and the nation and of the moral underpinnings of our civil government.”
But tradition rooted in religion, regardless of its merits, is under siege in these attacks.
In Starke, Fla., a group of atheists unveiled a monument last June near the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the Bradford County Courthouse. It included the following inscription: “The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.”
Even a small amount of research exposes that as revisionist history.
“It’s a flat-out lie,” said Aikman. “To make a ridiculous statement about America’s foundations having nothing to do with Christianity is a form of dishonesty that is quite breathtaking.”
Perhaps nowhere is the battle more intense than in the current Supreme Court case Greece v. Galloway, in which Americans United for Separation of Church and State sued the town of Greece, N.Y., on behalf of an atheist, Linda Stephens, and a Jewish woman, Susan Galloway. The women claim that the Greece town board’s regular practice of prayer—usually Christian—before its meetings is unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case last November and is expected to render a decision by June. It’s the first such case about public prayer in three decades.
Stephens is using the national platform to try to rally atheists into action.
“One thing I would say to my fellow atheists is we need to come out of the closet,” she told reporters last November. “There are many, many of us and we have to follow the lead of the LGBT community, and we have to make our voices heard.”
Aikman said it’s clear that atheist groups are trying to capitalize on the legal successes of the gay rights movement.
“I can’t prove it, but I think the fact that the LGBT agenda has been largely accepted in public media reinforces the claims of the secularists that Christianity is somehow a retrograde tradition and should be driven out of the marketplace,” he said.
Conversely, Aikman said a Supreme Court ruling in favor of Greece could create a huge momentum shift.
“If our side wins, it puts into obeisance somewhat the ongoing attack against Christian expression,” he said.
A loss by Greece, however, could have far-reaching implications.
David Cortman, an Alliance for Defending Freedom (ADF) attorney representing the town, said the case has the potential to be even more impactful than the school prayer decision more than 50 years ago because prayer at government functions is part of the nation’s heritage.
“These are cherished freedoms that we have embedded in our Constitution that reflect our God-given rights,” Cortman said. “It’s a practice that goes on today in thousands and thousands of communities across the country.”
Rep. Bridenstine noted that each session of Congress opens in prayer, and that both the Senate and the House of Representatives have official chaplains.
Cortman said the ADF is monitoring hundreds of related prayer cases around the country, but that he hopes the Supreme Court decision will settle the issue.
“It absolutely will affect the entire country,” he said. “If it comes from the Supreme Court, it is the law of the land and it applies everywhere. [If Greece loses], the opposing groups will be more aggressive than you’ve ever seen them. There will be a national campaign to see to it that public prayer is stamped out everywhere in the country.”
Of course, that wouldn’t thwart the legality or power of prayer by individuals or groups of believers on private property and in churches, but it would be a historic setback for the public expression of Christianity in America.
Throughout the country, there are ongoing attempts to have crosses removed from public property, from settings as grand as the 29 foot-by-12 foot cross atop Mount Soledad near San Diego, Calif., to the 2 foot-by-1 foot cross that is stuck in the ground outside the police department building in Searcy, Ark.
Perhaps the most active atheist group is the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), based in Madison, Wis. While the police chief in Searcy is balking at the group’s demand for the cross outside his office to be removed, the FFRF effectively pressured Stratton, Ohio, officials to remove crosses that had graced the Village Municipal Building for decades.
The FFRF also forced the removal of Gideon Bibles from the rooms of a lodge owned by the University of Wisconsin. And the group has won preliminary court rulings to prohibit churches from providing pastors tax-free housing allowances.
In a related case, American Atheists has filed suit in Kentucky on the grounds that churches should not get tax-reporting exemptions unavailable to other nonprofits, such as not having to divulge detailed salary, donor and expenditure information.
“There’s an old saying that the power to tax is the power to destroy, and I think that’s what it comes down to,” said Cortman, the ADF attorney. “With the threat of a tax, you can control organizations both public and private, and you can dictate what they can do.
Atheist and secular groups also have initiated counter-evangelism campaigns in an attempt to undercut efforts by Christians to spread the Gospel. The secular group Center For Inquiry announced that it has begun sending alternative material to prison inmates who receive Christian literature.
Cortman said the growing boldness of atheist and secularist groups should cause Christians to become more educated about and active in the effort to preserve long-standing religious liberties.
“These groups are trying to redefine America, and people of faith need to take a stand,” he said. “The church has kind of pulled itself out of what they would consider politics, but I would [suggest] that they’ve pulled themselves out of the community because God is the God of all things. He belongs everywhere.”
Mark Harris, senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C., and a candidate for the U.S. Senate, warned that Christians must remember that the Constitution provides freedom of—not from—religion.
”Part of a real spiritual awakening in this country is going to involve people in the church waking up to the reality of what’s going on around us,” Harris said.
“We must not allow it to get to the point where it’s too late to turn the tide. I am convicted and convinced in my heart that we have to stand up right now.”