Religious State Constitution Preambles

01 Sep 2018

The nation would benefit from Americans becoming more tolerant and respectful of the faith decisions of others. One modest step toward such a reconciliation would be to amend the religiously exclusionary language of almost all of our state constitution preambles.

Forty-five of the states have preambles that include references to the Christian God. Typical is the Pennsylvania provision: “We, the people of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, grateful to Almighty God for the blessings of civil and religious liberty, and humbly invoking His guidance, do ordain and establish this Constitution.” Such language either excludes non-Christians from the class of “we, the people,” or ascribes to such citizens gratitude to a deity in which they do not believe.

The nation has changed dramatically since the religious preambles were inserted in many state constitutions as a product of the Second Great Awakening of the first half of the 19th Century. Today, such preambles place around three in ten citizens at a remove on the basis of their religious beliefs. The religious preambles were never appropriate, even when those with disfavored religious beliefs were small in number. The inappropriateness of the exclusionary preambles is even more evident in today’s religiously diverse nation.

The religious preambles are disrespectful of citizens with disfavored religious beliefs. They have been used to justify practices – the placement of religious monuments in government space, the censorship of films, sectarian religious instruction in public schools, and the denial of tax preferences to disfavored religious groups – that have been held to violate the Establishment Clause. And by seeming to offer support to the fallacious belief that this is an officially Christian nation, the religious preambles foster intolerance and bigotry. As a prudential matter, to foster national reconciliation on matters of religious faith, they should be amended.