Monday, October 22, 2007

Why the “Wall of Separation” Is Indispensable for American Democracy

National Catholic Reporter writer John Allen reported online 9/21 that at a recent Pittsburgh symposium, Thomas J. Curry, a Roman Catholic Auxiliary Bishop in Los Angeles, denied that U.S. Constitution mandates a “wall of separation” between church and state.

Curry acknowledged it was Thomas Jefferson himself who crafted the phrase “wall of separation” in 1802, as a handy synonym for the freedom-of-religion language that Congress adopted in 1789 and the states ratified in 1791. But Curry thinks the U.S. Supreme Court was wrong to rule in 1947 that Jefferson’s interpretation is correct and normative.

the history of the First Amendment’s religion clauses, it’s quite astonishing that Curry could forget how closely they matched Jefferson’s views.

Seven different drafts of the First Amendment’s religious freedom language were distilled by Congressional committees or representatives from Virginia’s “Act for Establishing Religious Freedom,” which Jefferson proposed as governor in 1779. But the Virginia legislature didn’t pass its act until 1786, because it took Jefferson that long to overcome Patrick Henry’s competing proposal to make Christianity the state religion of Virginia, with all denominations given equal privileges. This was in a context where nine of the original 13 colonies had an established religion. Jefferson dedicated years to changing that, in Virginia and in the Constitution.

Curry says the First Amendment applies only to the state—so that churches are not bound by it and cannot violate it. He argues that the “wall of separation” image has led to mistaken conclusions that religions should stay out of public debates and that government has a positive role as a promoter of religious freedom.

The opening 16 words of the First Amendment read: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

Since Congress is the entity barred from establishing religion or prohibiting free exercise of religion, Curry may be correct in saying that churches cannot violate the First Amendment all by themselves. However, it is the basic ground rule for religions operating in the United States: churches here are bound by it, and they have tried repeatedly to get government entities to violate it.

A typical example is the “Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act,” passed by the Texas Legislature last spring. In a recent analysis,
Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, says the law requires that schools turn public events like morning announcements, football games and graduation ceremonies into “limited public forums,” which allow student speakers to promote their own religious beliefs and even try to convert other students.

While the act purports to shield students from discipline for expressing religious beliefs and to protect schools from lawsuits under state law, it hardly leaves the public school a neutral actor under the First Amendment. On the contrary, the school will be acting as a government agency forcing all students to participate in functions that promote specific religious views they or their families do not share. Miller envisions some real-life conflicts that might ensue:

“When a Wiccan student council president closes morning announcements each day with a prayer to the Mother Goddess, will Christian families object? What happens when the captain of the football team decides to use his pep rally speech to mock the faith of opposing players and, potentially, the faith of some students in his own school?”

I might add the very likely scenario of a conservative Christian valedictorian who asks the graduates and their families to praise Jesus for getting them to this milestone, when Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu or agnostic students might think Jesus had little to do with it and find their own religious views denigrated by the claim.

In my 8/24 posting on CNN’s series on religious extremists, I observed: “The blood-thirsty insistence by 'God’s Warriors' that they must destroy anyone who disagrees with them is the strongest present-day confirmation that that the wall of separation is the perfect antidote to intolerant self-worship masquerading as faith—and that the sooner it is adopted in every nation on earth, the safer the world will be.”

Jefferson and the other architects of the Bill of Rights experienced the chaos and misery that result when any religion is allowed to lord it over others. It took them decades, but it was precisely a wall of separation which they built between church and state. Their wisdom has proved durable for over 200 years. And every year has its cast of religious crackpots to remind us why.

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