I grew up chanting "one nation, under God" at a public school with my hand over my heart alongside all my classmates. I bought my lunches with currency that said "In God We Trust." During science classes, I listened to my teachers present information about creationism and intelligent design alongside the theory--just theory--of evolution. And when I came home, I'd see politicians on the television eagerly give soundbites about their faith in Jesus Christ like strutting peacocks showing off their tails. I was still a Christian during this part of my life, so I hardly noticed and certainly didn't mind. It all fit with my beliefs, and I didn't think it could be a very big deal for people who didn't share my Christian faith. After all, it was just words and didn't actually do anything to them or require anything of them, right? So why did there always seem to be some controversy or another about it? Why did organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union put up such a fuss about crosses being erected on public land and plaques displaying the Ten Commandments being put in courthouses? I didn't see the harm, so I couldn't understand the problem.
Now, I feel guilty about my years of self-centeredness and lack of empathy. It wasn't until the dusk of my religious faith and the dawn of my atheism that I understood the deep emotional frustrations or the practical objections held by the 21.5 percent of Americans who aren't Christian (CIA). Perhaps Christian Americans would better be able to relate to the frustrations of their non-Christian neighbors if they had to use a currency labeled with "In Allah We Trust" or "Faith In Humanity, Not Deities." Or if the so-called Blue Laws found in sixteen states prohibiting the sale of items like alcohol, furniture, and appliances on Sundays out of respect for the Holy Sabbath (DeCuir) instead imposed the values and beliefs of other religions, like the vegetarian diets of many Buddhists or the wearing of turbans in Sikhism. Or if the tax money going toward religious groups without them even needing to create a non-profit 501(c)3 organization to distinguish their non-religious work from their religious operations (Secular Coalition for America) went to psychic-spiritualist institutes or Wiccan enclaves.
The United States government needs to become neutral toward all religious beliefs, and it should do so by not using any particular group's beliefs, icons, scriptures, or institutions. The best way to achieve a fair and neutral stance is to eliminate the use of religious materials in all official capacities and abstain from giving funds to organizations affiliated with any particular religion.
First, the scriptures and symbols identified with any religion must be removed from the properties and projects of the government. This would mean removing "In God We Trust" from currency, the Ten Commandments from courts and legislative buildings, crosses from public property, religious curriculum from public science classes, and "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance, which is how it was recited before 1954 (ReligiousTolerance.org). Putting out religious material endorses particular religions and groups, but not putting out a religion's material does not imply a position of rejection or disrespect.
Next, laws imposed on everybody based on the religious beliefs of some, like the Blue Laws, must be repealed. People can make decisions for themselves based on their own beliefs, but should not seek to deny others the same right to live according to their beliefs. The First Amendment already plainly states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," so we need only to assert it.
Finally, the United States needs to stop using tax money collected from everybody to support the organizations and causes of particular religions. The government could still support non-religious causes like the reduction of poverty by funding non-religious organizations. Also, individuals would still have the liberty to donate their money to whatever organizations they like and could seek tax reimbursements if the organizations are non-profit.
Many people defending the status quo do so based on the erroneous belief that our nation was built by Christian men around Christian beliefs to be a Christian nation. However, the Founding Fathers had many different religious beliefs that included deism, agnosticism, and atheism, which is why they endeavored to create a nation that would avoid endorsing any particular belief and were careful to refer to religion only in exclusionary terms when writing the Constitution (Freedom From Religion Foundation). Any doubts about their intention should be settled by the Treaty of Tripoli, which begins with, "As the government of the United Sates is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion." The treaty was unanimously approved by the Senate in 1797 and signed into law by Founding Father and President John Adams himself.
To reestablish the separation of church and state, we must elect politicians and support civil rights advocacy groups that impress us with their commitment to liberty and equality for all instead of their own religion, and we must not let anybody mischaracterize the separation of church and state as an attack on Christianity. Also, when our fellow American citizens show insensitivity and ignorance, we must speak up to help them understand and empathize with the frustrations of people with different beliefs from their own. Otherwise, their votes will never change, and their votes are just as important as ours.
We all deserve to have a government that won't impose any religion on us, and we are not powerless to bring about that change in our system. Not only do we have the capability, but also the civic duty to pursue it.