The Constitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State
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Secular Humanism and the Supreme Court

Did the Supreme Court recognize "Secular Humanism" as a religion?

by Susan Batte


Argument

In Torcaso v. Watkins, a Maryland Notary Public was reinstated despite his refusal to declare belief in God. The Supreme Court noted that many religions, including Secular Humanism, deny the existence of God.

TORCASO V. WATKINS, October 1961, US Supreme Court:

Among religions in this country which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in God are Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism and others."

Response

The above information appears in a footnote. Whether or not secular humanism was or was not a religion was not the issue in Torcaso. However, the 11th Cir. Court of Appeals in Smith v. Bd. of Comm. of Alabama (1987) held:

"The Supreme Court has never established a comprehensive test for determining the "delicate question" of what constitutes a religious belief for purposes of the first amendment, and we need not attempt to do so in this case, for we find that, even assuming that secular humanism is a religion for purposes of the establishment clause, Appellees have failed to prove a violation of the establishment clause through the use in the Alabama public schools of the textbook at issue in this case."


Argument

In other Supreme Court decision Abington School District v. Schempp, 374, US 203, 83 S.Ct. 1560, 10 L.Ed.2d 844 (1963); Justice Clark stated:

"[T]he State may not establish a 'religion of secularism' in the sense of affirmatively opposing or showing hostility to religion, thus 'preferring those who believe in no religion over those who do believe.' "


Response

Of course, the quote would make more sense in context:

It is insisted that unless these religious exercises are permitted a "religion of secularism" is established in the schools. We agree of course that the State may not establish a "religion of secularism" in the sense of affirmatively opposing or showing hostility to religion, thus "preferring those who believe in no religion over those who do believe." We DO NOT AGREE, however, that this decision in any sense has that effect." (emphasis added)