Monday, August 6, 2012

Is There Really No Wall of Separation?

In a 2010 debate between Delaware Senate candidates Chris Coons (D) and Christine O’Donnell (R) there was a disagreement concerning schools being permitted to teach creationism as a competing theory to evolution. Coons made the argument that the First Amendment has been interpreted by the Supreme Court to imply separation of church and state. O’Donnell interrupted and the following was the exchange:
O'DONNELL: "Let me just clarify, you're telling me that the separation of church and state is found in the First Amendment?"

COONS: "'Government shall make no establishment of religion'"

O'DONNELL: "That's in the First Amendment?"

I’m conservative, a Christian, and I voted Republican straight down the ticket in the last election, but I’ve got something to say to my fellow conservatives. When we become so focused on winning the argument that we fail to consider what we’re saying, we are in danger of losing the freedoms we hope to protect. I’m not sure who started it, but a favorite argument from pastors and politicians is “the words separation of church and state don’t appear in the Constitution.” No, they don’t, but what does appear there and what does it mean?

Amendment I: 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 of grievances.

Now we all so know that the “wall of separation” phrase comes from a letter from Thomas Jefferson to a Baptist association that was concerned that the First Amendment was evidence that the government was taking upon itself the power to grant churches the right to worship and could take it away. To alleviate their concerns Thomas Jefferson wrote to tell them that he believed the First Amendment erected a wall of separation between church and state. The reason the Supreme Court would even consider this letter is that it establishes what the founding fathers thought they were writing into the Constitution when they wrote it. But for now, let’s throw that out and consider what the First Amendment really says.

"Congress shall make no law…"

The first thing we see here is that the limitation is on Congress (later applied to state government as well) and not on churches or individuals. If we take that statement alone, we might assume there is no “wall of separation.” Congress can’t interfere with the church, but churches can do what they want.

"…respecting an establishment of religion…"

In other words, Congress can’t set up a State church. They can’t tell you that it is okay to go to church, as long as you go to the state church. They can’t pick one religion and say it is right and all the others must go.

"…or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…"

Just as they can’t tell you have to go to worship a certain way, they also can’t prevent you from worshiping as you please. In this way, there is certainly a wall of separation that prevents the government from controlling religion.

Church Run States

Is there a wall of separation that goes the other way as well? Because the First Amendment doesn’t limit the power of religion, we must take more into consideration. The first thing we should ask is what happens when a church asserts its power over government. Let’s say that church A has decided that God wants crucifixes hanging from every stop sign. (Silly, yes, but I’m trying to make a point.) So out they go and hang a crucifix on every stop sign they find. They don’t ask for government funding, they just do it. We could possibly argue that Congress can’t make them take them down because it would require a law prohibiting the free exercise of religion. But church B believes that crucifixes are idols and should be destroyed. Now we have two conflicting religious views with Congress stuck in the middle.

The resolution to this problem is that church A has no say over whether a crucifix should hang from public property and neither does church B. The government makes that decision based on things that don’t deal with religion (such as safety concerns) . So while both churches are free to express their opinion and to make Congress aware of non-religious issues that might sway their decision one way or the other, the belief that God wants something a certain way or the belief that there is no God can’t be the basis of a law.

To me, that demonstrates that there is a wall of separation that goes both ways. Congress can still make laws that churches must obey, such as how many people can be in a building, as long as they apply universally to all organizations. Likewise, churches can seek to influence Congress, as long as other organizations have the same ability.

Overall, I believe that is a good thing. There are religions that I wouldn’t want controlling Congress and I certainly wouldn’t want Congress telling me what to believe.