Why Arizona senator's mandatory church suggestion wouldn't fly

Arizona State Senator Sylvia Allen suggested during a debate on a gun bill that a law requiring church attendance could help reverse 'moral erosion' in America. 

A Constitutional law scholar at the University of North Carolina says of one Arizona State Senator’s suggestion that church attendance be mandated: it “would be immediately struck down by any court as absolutely unconstitutional.”

During a televised committee debate Tuesday on a proposed concealed weapons bill, State Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, explained her theory that American needs a "moral rebirth" in order to keep people from feeling the need to carry a weapon.

"I believe what's happening to our country is that there's a moral erosion of the soul of America," she said. She continued:

It's the soul that is corrupt. How we get back to a moral rebirth I don't know. Since we are slowly eroding religion at every opportunity that we have. Probably we should be debating a bill requiring every American to attend a church of their choice on Sunday to see if we can get back to having a moral rebirth." 

However, Michael J. Gerhardt, Samuel Ashe Distinguished Professor in Constitutional Law and the director of the Center for Law and Government at the University of North Carolina  says in an interview “It’s not a question that such a law would be immediately struck down by any court as absolutely unconstitutional, but a question of how this kind of proposal is even taking up legislative time. They [legislators] might try and get around it by saying that you could choose the mosque, synagogue, or church to attend. Still, when [legislators] attempt to connect compulsion to religion there’s no question such a law would be struck down."

Last week, during a town hall meeting in Chicago, President Barack Obama floated the idea of compulsory voting, which Gerhardt says is a far cry from mandatory church attendance for all Americans.

Twitter users, including Ms. Allen’s fellow state senator, Democrat Steve Farley, reacted with shock and disbelief.

From a religious standpoint, Sara Wastella, pastor at the Larchmont United Methodist Church says in interview, “The government cannot compel someone to attend church. That would be establishing Christianity as a mandated religion. There is hubris in thinking simple attendance is enough to compel a moral shift, or rebirth as the Senator puts it. Transformation in a Christian context is the result of divine encounter and the relationship we have with Christ.”

Mr.  Gerhardt says, “President Obama and the senator from Arizona are both trying to address social issues, and each is trying to add a mandatory requirement. We do tend to see a run of similar proposals catch on from time to time, so I understand politically and even religiously why a politician might suggest compulsory action right now.”

“I’m not at all suggesting these politicians aren’t acting in good,” he adds, in agreement with Ms. Wastella’s point. “However, in the case of the suggestion to mandate church attendance, it violates the [First Amendment's] Establishment Clause of the Constitution.”

The clause prohibits the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion.”

According to the Cornell University Law School website, it not only forbids the government from establishing an official religion,” but also prohibits government actions that unduly favor one religion over another. It also prohibits the government from unduly preferring religion over non-religion, or non-religion over religion.”

However, the Supreme Court has permitted religious invocations to open legislative session, government funding of bussing and textbooks for private religious schools, and efforts by school districts to arrange schedules to accommodate students’ extra-curricular religious education programs.

On the other hand, the site adds that the Court “has also ruled against religious displays at courthouses, state funding supplementing teacher salaries at religious schools, and some overly religious holiday decorations on public land.”

“There are some serious problems we’ve got happening in the nation,” Gerhardt says. “Ultimately it’s going to take a systemic solution, more than one or two laws mandating behavior, to make substantive change.”

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