There is a growing discussion on the concept of ‘separation of church and state’ in the Constitution. The Citizen has touched on this topic before, but the time has come for a more thoughtful and deliberate treatment.
There was considerable resistance to ratifying the Constitution. The delegates from the several states expressed concern that it contained no guarantees of state and personal sovereignty. The response to this omission was that there was no need for such language – the Constitution clearly delineated the powers of the proposed federal government. If the Constitution did not grant the government a power, they could not presume to exercise it. When it appeared that the Constitution would fail, a committee was called to draft amendments that addressed the concerns of delegates.
Is it pure chance that the first amendment written dealt with religion? If ever there is an argument that the founders of our government were religious men, this is it. The First Amendment reads as follows:
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.
The language seems to be pretty straightforward. Congress is prohibited from creating an official, state-sanctioned religion. The United States had recently won it’s independence from Great Britain – a nation that possessed a state religion. They also recognized the proliferation of religions – almost exclusively Christian – in the latter part of the 18th century. The second phrase of the first sentence is telling – ‘prohibiting the free exercise thereof’. The language is clear; the government cannot interfere in any way, shape, or form with their citizen’s religious practices. Nowhere do we see a word about a citizen being forbidden from applying his or her religious convictions to their participation in state affairs.
The first time the word ‘separation’ comes into play is in a letter Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptists.
…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 & State.
Thomas Jefferson expressed his perspective on the First Amendment, but that is not how it reads – it is how he interpreted the phrase. Nonetheless, this interpretation is one that has been used to justify the more restrictive concept of separation. Is this just semantics? Not at all.
Separation implies a clear and distinct cleaving of the affairs of state and the exercise of religion in civic life. If this is truly the language of the First Amendment, then the Authors made a deliberate attempt to require the citizens of the United States to keep their faith out of public life. Now, if this is the intent, wouldn’t they have written it this way? According to the secularists who embrace the doctrine of Separation, they did.
The Separationists won their major victory in 1962 with the Engel V. Vitale decision. Justice Black, writing for the majority, espoused the intent of the First Amendment to mean separation. The case involved prayer in school. Black and the majority used Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists as the foundation of their interpretation. They maintained that a public school requiring a morning prayer was a clear violation of this wall between religion and the state. The sole dissenting opinion was offered by Associate Justice Potter Stewart. He believed that the majority went too far afield in their interpretation.
I think that the court has misapplied a great constitutional principle. I cannot see how ‘official religion’ is established by letting those who want to say a prayer say it. On the contrary, I think that to deny the wish of these school children to join in reciting this prayer is to deny them the opportunity of sharing in the spiritual heritage of the nation.
He argued that the establishment clause was limited to forbidding the establishment of an official state religion and using the authority of government to coerce specific religious beliefs. The conflict in this case is an example of two opposing camps of Constitutional thought. The first is loose constructionist, the opposing viewpoint is strict constructionist.
Strict construction demands that the Constitution should be followed exactly as stated. It does not allow for any person, party, or branch of government to exert power that is not specifically granted it within the Constitution. The position of loose construction argues that government has a great amount of leeway and could do essentially anything that was not specifically forbidden. Proponents of the latter position often use the ‘Elastic Clause’ to justify this interpretation.
The Congress shall have Power – To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof. – Article 1, Section 8, Clause 18
I would argue – and better legal minds than mine concur – that this doctrine applies solely to Congress – and only Congress – having the ability to pass laws to handle issues not foreseen by the authors of the Constitution. This clause takes great pains to state that their ability to enhance their authority cannot exceed the powers that have already been conferred. Certainly, it could not – or should not – be used to contravene the intent of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. In and of itself, this power is also limited by the nature of who holds it – Congress. Theoretically, this is the branch of government most answerable to the People. The reason for the Catholic Citizen is to re-ignite the political participation and power of Catholics and like-minded Christians in order to exercise our sovereignty over a legislative branch that has marginalized our rights. The authors believed that the people would use their power wisely and not allow themselves to be manipulated. Sadly, they were mistaken.
The most significant problem with the Engel V. Vitale decision is that it actually established a state religion – the State Church of Humanism. This decision has been used as precedent for numerous other decisions over the years. The government with the collusion of the ACLU has imposed a humanistic belief system that bears the full power of the government to suppress religious expressions in a public forum.
The body of evidence that supports the Christian foundation of our nation is comprehensive. The clearest and simplest application of the First Amendment forbids a type of state-sponsored, ‘official’ religion – like 18th century England and France. And stops there. It clearly demands that citizens are allowed ‘free exercise’. Justice Potter Steward argued that this ‘wall of separation’ restricts free exercise. And so does the Citizen.