June 4, 2010

Government Prayer and Minority Rights in a Democracy

The following is not a verbatim quote I will attribute to a single source but an amalgam of what I have heard again and again from countless American Christians:
America is a democracy. You atheists don't seem to understand that you are the minority. If we want government-sanctioned prayers, we'll have them because the majority of Americans support them. Majority rules, get it?
Anyone making such a claim desperately needs to repeat the American Government class that was taught back when I was in high school, but that is unlikely to happen. How then can we explain the problem with this statement in such a way that the person making it might be able to understand? How can we reach those who might actually be reachable?

I tend to start by pointing out that the Constitution protects minority rights in many ways and that this is one of the strengths of our democracy. The majority, however well-intentioned they might be, does not get to trample the rights of the minority. I might use Civil Rights as an example.

The Constitution also protects all of us by containing clear prohibitions against certain forms of government action, even if they have popular support. The Establishment Clause, for example, states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." In such a case, it does not matter what the majority of the people want; the law is clear.

Here is how the Los Angeles Times recently put it:
But voters' preferences cannot overrule constitutional protections or legal precedent in such matters. If a government body is promoting the establishment of religion, that's a violation of the 1st Amendment.
How about you? How do you try to explain that living in a democracy does not entitle the majority to trample the will of the minority however they want?

H/T to Friendly Atheist