Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Merry Wall of Christmas Separation

Okay, it's Christmas season once again and the "holiday" scrooges are out in full force. Using the hammer of separation of Church and State, they are working to beat the words "Merry" and "Christmas" out of our public expression free speech. They are seeking to ban nativities, Christmas trees, and Christmas music from court houses, schools, and virtually all public land. And as I said, it's all in the name of "separation of church and state."

So let me admit right up front that I laugh at these attempts because you can't drive Christmas away no matter how hard you may try and because this whole idea of a wall of separation between church and state is not even remotely found in our Constitution. In fact, it was the intent of the founders to protect and preserve specifically Christianity. Not Islam and Hinduism and ALL other beliefs, but Christianity.

These attempts to whittle Christianity out of public life are nothing new. Going back to the 1800s Congress was arguing even then about these matters. But the House Judiciary Committee on March 27, 1854 boldly explained that, "Had the people during the revolution, had any suspicion of any attempt to war against Christianity, that revolution would have been strangled in its cradle."

Wow – can you imagine such words coming from a committee of Congress today? I wonder what Keith Olbermann and Jon Stewart would do with that?

This whole business of the separation of church and state is not, as I said, even in the Constitution, but instead goes back to a conversation that the Danbury Baptist Church, in Connecticut, was having with Thomas Jefferson. This church had heard rumors that the Congregationalist Denomination was going to be declared the "national" denomination by the government. They were greatly disturbed by this because the whole reason for leaving Britain and for fighting a Revolutionary War was to get out from under the thumb of a dictatorial government and the state sanctioned Anglican Church.

So the members of this church and association wrote Thomas Jefferson a letter of concern. In response, Jefferson wrote them back a letter. In that letter he assured the church that this would never happen and reminded them that,

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 prohibit the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church and State….

And there it is…those famous words that have changed our approach to religion in America forever. It is clear that people have taken Jefferson's words and run with them much, much further and in directions he never intended. When you read his words, it is clear that Jefferson was ensuring the people that the government would never declare any one Christian church or denomination as THE official church of America. Period. That is ALL he said. He never said or intended that we would expel prayer and Bible reading from schools. He never intended that we would remove the Ten Commandments, crosses, nativities, etc. from public space.

And if Thomas Jefferson were here today, I firmly believe that he would stand in the halls of Congress and boldly wish us all a Merry Christmas!


1 comment:

Doug Indeap said...

“Separation of church and state” is but a metaphor to describe the principle of the First Amendment and the no-religious-test clause of the Constitution. While some try to pass off the Supreme Court's decisions as simply a misreading of Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists, that letter has played but a small part in the Court's decisions. Perhaps even more than Jefferson, Madison influenced the Court's view. Madison, who had a central role in drafting the Constitution and First Amendment, confirmed that he understood them to "[s]trongly guard[] . . . the separation between Religion and Government." Madison, Detached Memoranda (~1820). He made plain, too, that they guarded against more than just laws creating state sponsored churches or imposing a state religion. Mindful that old habits die hard and that tendencies of citizens and politicians could and sometimes did lead them to entangle government and religion (e.g., "the appointment of chaplains to the two houses of Congress" and "for the army and navy" and "[r]eligious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgivings and fasts"), he considered the question whether these were "consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom" and responded: "In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the United States forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion."

The legislative history of the First Amendment belies the narrow scope you would give it. Were Congress precluded only from formally establishing a national church, the intent of the Amendment could easily be circumvented by doing all sorts of things to promote this or that religion--stopping just short of formally establishing a church. The founders debated and rejected just such a narrow provision, and the courts have wisely interpreted the Amendment to restrict the government from taking steps that could establish religion de facto as well as de jure.

When discussing separation of church and state, it is critical to distinguish between "public square" and "government." The principle of separation of church and state does not purge religion from the public square--far from it. Indeed, the First Amendment's "free exercise" clause assures that each individual is free to exercise and express his or her religious views--publicly as well as privately. The Amendment constrains only the government not to promote or otherwise take steps toward establishment of religion.

As government can only act through the individuals comprising its ranks, when those individuals are performing their official duties (e.g., public school teachers instructing students in class), they effectively are the government and thus should conduct themselves in accordance with the First Amendment's constraints on government. When acting in their individual capacities, they are free to exercise their religions as they please. If their right to free exercise of religion extended even to their discharge of their official responsibilities, however, the First Amendment constraints on government establishment of religion would be eviscerated. While figuring out whether someone is speaking for the government may sometimes be difficult, making the distinction is critical.

The First Amendment embodies the simple, just idea that each of us should be free to exercise his or her religious views without expecting that the government will endorse or promote those views and without fearing that the government will endorse or promote the religious views of others. By keeping government and religion separate, the establishment clause serves to protect the freedom of all to exercise their religion. Reasonable people may differ, of course, on how these principles should be applied in particular situations, but the principles are hardly to be doubted.