Jefferson’s Wall of Separation

Thomas Jefferson - photo by David CosandIf dogma isn’t clouding your judgment then a wall of separation between church and state probably seems like a good idea. However, there are Christians in this country who say – and they are correct – the phrase “separation of church and state” is not written in the United States Constitution. They believe that quoting Thomas Jefferson‘s “wall of separation” as rule of law is a misinterpretation of the text of the First Amendment, which reads…

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.

As it relates to prayer in public schools, Christians use “prohibiting the free exercise” as the basis of their argument. They state that prohibiting children to pray in public schools violates the First Amendment. The problem with this argument is that it ignores the preceding text of “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”. Some may strictly interpret the scope of that text to legislation passed by congress. Why would the architects of the Constitution feel it was fine for other government institutions to endorse a specific religion? Did they only intend to specify congress or was it shorthand for a larger meaning?

James Madison - public domain - Library of CongressJames Madison – the 4th U.S. President and the principle drafter of the Bill of Rights – wrote, “practical distinction between Religion and Civil Government is essential to the purity of both, and as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States.”, in a June 3, 1811 letter to the Baptist Churches in Neal’s Creek and Black Creek, North Carolina.

What is the intended purpose of a constitution for any nation that values personal freedom? I argue that a constitution of any free democracy should establish rights, not deny rights and it should limit the majority’s ability to impose tyranny on a minority.

If you’ve ever read the Constitution you are aware that there are many clauses lacking specificity. The architects of the United States Constitution crafted a framework for our free democracy knowing that much of the specificity would be left up to the judicial branch. With that in mind we can look at decades of precedent where the Supreme Court has stated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment was intended, as Jefferson stated, to form a wall of separation between church and state.

Even if we were to remove overwhelming precedent from the record it should still be obvious – to those not blinded by doctrine – that you cannot have a society that is truly free for all people unless the framework and laws of that society protect the freedoms of all, even the smallest minority group. Any endorsement of religious beliefs – even loosely acknowledged – by state-run institutions like a public school would not pass that litmus test. Those that would argue infringement of rights because praying is not permitted in public school stand on no higher ground than someone arguing infringement of rights because smoking or foul language are not tolerated in the classroom. Again, this is where the framework of our free society lacks specificity. It’s simply not possible to define all situations and all scenarios, nor would it be desirable. I believe most people in this country implicitly understand this and generally accept where free speech rights start and end. But there are others who would like to exploit passages and clauses to impose a narrow vision of the world.

This is not a religion bashing article. This is an advocacy of the free practice of religious beliefs and it is a defense of the First Amendment of the Constitution which protects that freedom, not just for the majority, but for everyone. What mechanism exists to protect a minority religion if not for a wall of separation between church and state?

I want to clarify that not all Christians lack this understanding. President Jimmy Carter – who refers to himself as an evangelical Christian – stated in a recent interview on The Rachel Maddow Show: “I separated my religious beliefs totally from any aspects of statehood or governance”. He went on to say, “we have seen…is what I consider to be an unwarranted intrusion of the religious community into the political campaigns”. Carter understands what makes this country great. His personal and private convictions do not cloud his judgment when it comes to governing a democracy.

Human Rights

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