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Pennsylvania Rejected God in 1817

Pennsylvanians who listen to talk radio or conservative Christian clergy may get the impression that the United States was founded on God and Christianity, and that the separation of religion and government began in the 1960s when the U.S. Supreme Court banned teacher-led prayer in public classrooms.

Not so, says Pennsylvania Nonbelievers, a midstate atheist group, celebrating Constitution Day, Thursday, September 17, 2009. “While searching microfilm at the state archives this summer, we found an unexpected gem,” said Steven J. Neubauer, president of the York-based group.

“In February 1817,” Neubauer said, “a Pennsylvania state legislator named Rogers, who served on the House Vice and Immorality Committee, introduced a resolution urging the U.S. Congress to add references to God into the U.S. Constitution.”

The Harrisburg Chronicle, on March 3, 1817, reported that “Rogers adverted to the fact of all nations prefacing their public instruments with the acknowledgement of a God and a Providence, and that this Christian nation had not that acknowledgement in their Constitution.”

His colleagues in the House objected for several reasons, most notably, “that it was not right to mix religion with politics.”

According to the House reporter, Rogers argued “that there was nothing sectarian in this proposition, it only going to acknowledge a God and a Providence, which were recognized by all descriptions of Christians.”

Put to a vote, the resolution was roundly “negatived” (defeated)– Yeas 22, Nays 64.

“While most of those Harrisburg ‘nay-sayers’ were probably Christians, they realized the importance of keeping God out of government, and government out of God,” Neubauer claimed. “The same goes for the Founding Fathers, who, after much debate, intentionally omitted any mention of God, Creator, or Jesus in the U.S. Constitution. In fact, the only thing remotely religious is the way they dated it, according to the routine practice of that era, ‘In the year of our Lord.’ What were they expected to do– create a whole new calendar system just for official documents?”

“Today, the Constitution’s preamble still begins with the wonderfully secular ‘We the people,’ a phrase that correctly identifies the real source of America’s strength–its citizens, not a fictitious supernatural being,” said Neubauer. “The phrase also serves as a beacon of hope to oppressed peoples throughout the world.”

“If Rogers and his ilk had ultimately prevailed, the preamble would have started, ‘In the Name of God most Holy and most merciful,’ much like an Islamic chant. Pennsylvanians, and all Americans, should keep that in mind as they celebrate our Godless Constitution’s special day this Thursday,” added Carl H. Silverman, Capital Area Director of the group, who discovered the failed resolution.

Pennsylvania Nonbelievers, Inc. is central Pennsylvania’s leading organization of atheists, agnostics, and secular humanists, with regular meetings in York and Harrisburg, and is affiliated with American Atheists, Atheist Alliance International, and the Council for Secular Humanism.

(Submitted to local papers)

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