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Saturday, November 21, 2009

Separation -- The Views of Church and State

A discussion has true meaning in that it will not change a truth; however, by exchanging opinions we can interpret a then meaning of any truth. We tend to start any argument by focusing on simple facts, yet by the end of the argument, we generally have lost sight of the original factual support because special issues and interpretations cloud the path. It is so with anything worthy of argumentation. The key to learning is listening, responding, and deep thinking. Only after ample time has been given to this process can we consider a strong point of view.

Our Government and Religion

Today, headlines highlight many issues about the Constitution of the United States and religion. Leonard Levy, (Origins of the Bill of Rights, Yale University Press, 1999) amd Akhil Reed Amar  (The Bill of Rights, Yale University Press, 1998) cite a few recent developments:

1. "The Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court is removed from office for refusing to remove a monument to the Ten Commandments from his court house building.

2. A California atheist sues to remove the words under God from the Pledge of Allegiance and loses; then wins on appeal; then loses in the Supreme Court.

3. President George W. Bush is criticized for his idea of the Faith-Based Initiative, where faith-based organizations could get federal funds where previously they had been barred.

4. Public school bus drivers are required to remove holiday decorations from their busses after complaints of 'offended' parents."

We are a nation of many religious faiths and the fact that many of us work for the local, state, and federal governments prohibits actual physical separation of people and their various governmental and religious roles.
A driving question from the beginnings of the nation was: "Can religion and government co-exist without crossing over each others' boundaries?"

Before we all blow our gaskets, let's look at the facts in the beginning. Perhaps, we can clear up some misunderstandings that date back to over a couple of hundred years ago. Here is a brief history of religion as it pertains to the government of America.

 1. Words of the Original Constitution

The original Constitution made only one direct reference to religion that seemed to point to a desire for some degree of religious freedom.

A.  United States Constitution, Article 6, (End of Third Clause)

"[N]o religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."

True, without exception, the Framers were Christian or, at the very least, believed in God (Deism). There were no Jews or Muslims, no Hindus or atheists, and only two Roman Catholics. They were members of more than a half-dozen sects of the Protestant side of Christianity, though. Still, nothing is mentioned about religious belief and office qualification in Article 6.

A simple, straight-forward statement that applied to all offices in the entire United States, both state and federal, the clause simply meant that no public position could be required to be held by a person of any religious denomination. For example, the President could not be required to be a Methodist or the mayor could not be required to be a Jew. Also, any groups that some in the country would have liked to prevent from holding office in any governmental jurisdiction in the United States, such as Muslims or atheists, were, indeed, allowed that right by law.

B. The Presidential Oath of Office is codified in the Constitution in this way:

"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

Of course, this wording (or affirm) allowed any person (even the unreligious) to take the oath of highest office with the same force of personal responsibility that swearing would have for a religious person. The oath was all-inclusive and, as stated, religion-neutral. No mention was made of a commitment to God for its sanctity of truth. The President personally affirmed the execution of duties and the defense of the Constitution.

C. The Year of Constitutional Creation

The Constitution refers to the year that the Convention created the document as

"the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven."

Some have argued that the use of the term Lord in this way is indicative of something, but its use is related to standards of history at the time. The language was a conventional way of stating a date on a document of the period. It seems extremely connotative to imply a religious connection to a calendar date.

2. Words of the Bill of Rights

U.S. Constitution - Amendment 1

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress (remedy) of grievances."

Before the passage of the Bill of Rights, most all of the individual state constitutions contained their own bill of rights — rights that the people of the states were guaranteed to enjoy regardless of any law or rule to the contrary. Interestingly, most Constitutional supporters felt that a federal bill of rights was unnecessary. After all, the federal government was not allowed to legislate on issues that it had no direct mandate to do so. Also, a bill of rights could severely limit the rights of the people.

In the end, however, many supporters of the Constitution, including one prominent person, James Madison, agreed to support a bill of rights in the Constitution, if it could be ratified.

The authors agreed (1) that no national religion should be established, in contrast to several European nations of the time (and to this day) which have an official state church, (2) that no one sect of any religion be favored by the government, and (3) that all persons should be free to worship in whatever manner they deemed appropriate for them. After much debate concerning the language and meaning of the document, the government ratified the Bill of Rights .

The "free exercise" clause undoubtedly referred to an individual right. It protected the right of the individual to choose to worship, or not, as he or she saw fit. The "establishment" clause referred to a state power. This clause not only prohibited the federal government from establishing a national religion, but also prohibited government aid to any religion, even on a non-preferential basis.The First Amendment also prevented the federal government from forcing a state to disestablish any state religion.

The "establishment of religion"  took on a whole new meaning in America. Several attempts were made in several states to have and maintain official churches. Essentially, the Bill of Rights had no effect on how a state treated its churches. 

At the time of ratification, the states were still free to establish and maintain churches, to direct church taxes be paid, and even to require attendance in church, all within the bounds of the state's own constitution. And, many did. But with so many denominations, it became increasingly difficult to do so.

Steve Mount ( reported, "If a state established the Congregationalist Church and required taxes be paid to it, it was not long before Lutherans or Baptists began to refuse to pay the tax. By the time the Constitution was ratified, several states had official state churches, but not official state denominations. In other words, a state would charter a church as it would a business today, but it would have no other formal role in the running of the church. Even that practice was waning, with only six states incorporating churches in any way by 1789. Clearly, the trend in church/state relations was towards no relationship at all."

3. Jefferson's Wall of Separation

It did not take long after the passage and ratification of the 1st Amendment for people to start interpreting it to simply mean that that federal government had no business getting mixed into religion. Of course, there was more to it than that, especially when it came to the individual right part of the amendment. Yet, argue, people did.

Nothing in the Constitution specifically said a "Wall of Separation" existed between religion and government. The Wall, however, was a nice shorthand metaphor for non-establishment.

Thomas Jefferson had deep religious convictions, but convictions that religion was a very personal matter, one which the government had no business getting involved in. He was vilified by some for his criticism of such Biblical truths as the Great Flood and the theological age of the Earth. As President, he discontinued the practice started by his predecessors George Washington and John Adams of proclaiming days of fasting and thanksgiving. He was a staunch believer in the separation of church and state

Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802 to answer a letter from them written in October 1801. They had complained that in their state, the religious liberties they enjoyed were not seen as immutable rights, but as privileges granted by the legislature — as "favors granted."

The letter contains the phrase "wall of separation between church and state," which led to the short-hand for the Establishment Clause that we use today: "Separation of church and state."

Jefferson consulted a couple of New England politicians to assure that his words would not offend while still conveying his message: "it was not the place of the Congress or the Executive to do anything that might be misconstrued as the establishment of religion."

Here is a that letter ( with Jefferson's spelling and punctuation:

Mr. President

To messers Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins, & Stephen S. Nelson a committee of the Danbury Baptist association in the state of Connecticut.


The affectionate sentiments of esteem & approbation which you are so good as to express towards me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptist association, give me the highest satisfaction. my duties dictate a faithful & zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, and in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more & more pleasing.

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man & his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state. [Congress thus inhibited from acts respecting religion, and the Executive authorised only to execute their acts, I have refrained from presenting even occasional performances of devotion presented indeed legally where an Executive is the legal head of a national church, but subject here, as religious exercises only to the voluntary regulations and discipline of each respective sect.] Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the common Father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves and your religious association, assurances of my high respect & esteem.

(signed) Thomas Jefferson

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