August 25, 2019 A Religious and Political Commentary

Separation of Church and State?

Recently, the “Trinity Lutheran” case was decided favorably on behalf of the church in the US Supreme Court. “In dissent,” the accompanying story tells us, “Justice Sonya Sotomayor said the ruling weakens the nation’s longstanding commitment to separation of church and state (DRC, June 26).”

In case you haven’t been following, a church in Missouri applied for a state-funded program to resurface their kindergarten playground with chopped-up, recycled tires. The church met every stipulation of the program and was ranked 5 out of 44 submissions.  They were denied because they were a church.

Justice Sotomayor tells us this is a matter of “separation of church and state.” That phrase is thrown around a great deal, but few of us really know its origins.

You won’t find it in the Constitution. The First Amendment contains two clauses: the “establishment” and the “free exercise” clauses. Madison’s final draft reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Grammatically, it is very simple to understand. The federal government may not establish a religion. In other words, it cannot set up a religion or cause to achieve permanent acceptance or recognition of a religion – which includes promoting one over another.  Likewise, the federal government may not forbid or prevent an American’s religious exercise. (We might note here the Obama administration’s and candidate Clinton’s preference for the phrase “freedom of worship” instead of “freedom of religion.”  The difference, of course, is that worship takes place inside a church, synagogue, or mosque…religion, on the other hand, permeates one’s life and goes with them to the marketplace.)

As easy as the First Amendment is to understand, the questions become what the framers meant and where one finds this “separation” phrase? The answers to both are found in the writings of one of the chief architects, Thomas Jefferson. In the early years of this Constitution, a minority religious denomination in Connecticut was concerned that the newly formed government might promote one religious group over another…just as the English had done.

Now President, Mr. Jefferson wrote them a letter to assuage their concerns. In his response, he described the First Amendment as “building a wall of separation between Church and State.” This phrase, missing from the Constitution itself, has been snatched out of context, misinterpreted, and used – even by the Supreme Court itself – to re-interpret the Constitution.

In this misguided thinking, no longer does the First Amendment describe, as originally intended, a protection of the church from the state.   Now, separationists have interpreted it to mean protecting the state from the church. We’ve used it to keep prayer out of schools, to punish coaches who pray with athletes, to ban cheerleaders’ banners, to rename “Christmas Break” “Winter Break,” to remove crosses from public places, to keep Bible clubs out of public facilities…even to keep dangerous candy canes from students and old tires from kindergartners!

To be sure, Jefferson’s metaphor was poorly chosen. According to the Constitution, the wall only goes one way: keeping the state out of the church. James Wilson, a signer of the Declaration from Pennsylvania reveals the framers never considered a nation without religious influence: “Far from being rivals or enemies, religion and law are twin sisters, friends and mutual assistants.  Indeed, these two sciences run into each other.  The divine law, as discovered by reason and the moral sense, forms an essential part of both.”

This was Jefferson’s thinking, as well.  How do we know? We know because at the same time he wrote the Connecticut Baptists about “building a wall of separation” he was also promoting the use of the Bible in the public schools of Washington.

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