Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief: The Public Square
Religion is pervasive in the public square in the United States — and it is constitutionally protected. The ACLU has long defended individuals, families, and religious communities who wish to manifest their religion in public. Particularly when compared to other industrialized democracies, religion plays a prominent role in American public life. Churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, cathedrals, and Gurdwaras are plainly visible in the public sphere and their right to display religious symbols and to construct religious edifices is protected by the Constitution and by statutes. The ACLU has actively supported the right of people to preach their religion in public places and to go door-to-door to spread their religious messages. The Constitution properly protects the right of religious figures to preach their messages over the public airwaves. Religious books, magazines, and newspapers are freely published and delivered through the U.S. Postal System. No other industrialized democracy has as much religion in the public square as does the United States.
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Some people, however, mistakenly use the word "public" when they really mean "governmental." This can be seen, for example, with Ten Commandments monuments. The right of churches and families to erect such monuments on their own property is constitutionally protected, regardless of whether it is public or private and regardless of whether someone is offended or not. A Christian cross that is fully visible from a public sidewalk is constitutionally protected when placed in front of a church. But if that same cross were moved across the street and placed in front of city hall, it would violate the Constitution. The issue is not "religion in the public square" — as the rhetoric misleadingly suggests — but whether the government should be making decisions about whose sacred texts and symbols should be placed on government property and whose should be rejected.