Are people so afraid of the Truth that the mere mention of God is enough to set them howling to Court?
I mean, consider Santa Claus. Most people over age 10 do not believe in Santa Claus. Yet no one cares if teachers read their students “The Night Before Christmas,” or put a picture of Santa Claus on their classroom door, or pass out Santa Claus stickers. But they will sue a teacher (see original story here) for having a banner that reads “In God We Trust” (the phrase on our national coinage), “One Nation Under God” (from our national pledge of allegiance) “God Bless America” (sung at many national ball games), and a few other historical phrases, including one from the Declaration of Independence. (I won’t even go into the fact that the Declaration of Independence is absolutely riddled with references to God, other than to ask: do we have to ban it from our history textbooks now?) It is not as if this teacher was “preaching” to his students, any more than hanging a picture of Santa Claus would “force” them to believe in his existence. If people can dismiss the one, then why not the other?
But what really leaves me gasping for air is not that this case went to court, but that a judge then ruled that the teacher has no constitutional right to display such a sign. Excuse me? What Constitution are you looking at?
The Constitution I studied in school never even references God or religion, or what a person can or cannot say in school! The phrase “separation of church and state” NEVER (let me repeat, NEVER) appears in the Constitution, or the Declaration of Independence, or the Bill of Rights, or any of the subsequent Constitutional amendments. What does appear is the following:
- Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. (First Amendment)
That means that our government cannot establish a national religion, and MORE IMPORTANTLY cannot prohibit a person from exercising their religion — NO MATTER WHAT! (The only exception is when a religion calls for human sacrifice or polygamy or something like that, in which case the government can interfere, according to an 1879 Supreme Court ruling). Contrary to what that judge may have thought, teachers have EVERY Constitutional right to display such banners in their classroom!
The problem is that people (even judges!) have come to believe that the phrase “separation of church and state” is derived from our Constitution, and worse, because they are taking it out of its true context, they have completely distorted its original intent.
The phrase “separation of church and state” was originally written by then-President Thomas Jefferson in a letter to a group of Baptists, in which he reassures them that the United States was not about to make a “national denomination” of their rival Congregationalists. He essentially states that a “separation of church and state” exists which precludes Congress from establishing a national denomination (note: the key word here is denomination, not religion. Jefferson assumed, as did all the founding fathers, that Christianity was and always would be the national religion). That is ALL.
Unfortunately, no one ever looks at the context of the phrase “separation of church and state” anymore. Few people really understand what it was being used for. Worse, is that many people (including judges) assume it is somewhere in the Constitution. It is NOT. (An interesting fact: every time this phrase has been quoted IN CONTEXT in court — including in the Supreme Court — the subsequent rulings have supported religious demonstrations in the classroom and on government property. It is only once this phrased started being taken OUT OF CONTEXT that judgments like this one have occurred). Even taken out of context, “separation of church and state” is and always will be an individual’s personal opinion. If personal opinions and letters could be the basis for judicial rulings, consider the following from George Washington’s Farewell Address (leaving presidential office, 1796):
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them.
He is saying you cannot be an American patriot if you try and subvert religion and morality in our society!
Better still, consider these words from Benjamin Rush, Declaration of Independence signer and the first Founding Father to call for free public schools (1786, Rush’s “Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic”):
“The only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments… Without religion I believe learning does much mischief to the morals and principals of mankind.”
or Benjamin Franklin, one of the most excellent and influential Founding Fathers, in a speech to Congress (Constitutional Convention, 1787):
In the beginning of the contest with Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayers in this room for divine protection. Our prayers, Sir, were heard and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a superintending Providence in our favor… And have we now forgotten this powerful Friend? Or do we imagine we no longer need His assistance? I have lived, Sir, a long time and the longer I live the more convincing proofs I see of this truth: “That God governs in the affairs of man.” And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the Sacred Writings that except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it. I firmly believe this.
I also believe without His concurring aid we shall succeed in the political building no better than the builders of Babel; we shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded; and we ourselves shall become a reproach and a byword down to future ages. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter from this unfortunate instance despair of establishing government by human wisdom and leave it to chance, war, or conquest. I therefore beg leave to move that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of heaven and its blessing on our deliberation be held in this assembly every morning before we proceed to business.
How about some more presidents?
John Adams, 2nd President and Founding Father (June 21, 1776 letter):
“It is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand.”
Calvin Coolidge, 30th President (June 17, 1921 Commencement Address):
“We do not need more intellectual power, we need more moral power. We do not need more knowledge, we need more character. We do not need more law, we need more religion.”
Andrew Jackson, 7th President and Founding Father (June 8, 1845, prior to death)
“That Book [The Bible], Sir, is the Rock on which this Republic rests.”
Woodrow Wilson, 28th President (1911 Pre-Presidential Campaign Speech)
“America was born a Christian nation. America was born to exemplify that devotion to the elements of righteousness which are derived from the revelations of Holy Scriptures. Ladies and gentlemen, I have a very simple thing to ask of you. I ask of every man and woman in this audience that from this night on they will realize that part of the destiny of America lies in their daily perusal of this great book of revelations. That if they would see America free and pure they will make their own spirits free and pure by this baptism of the Holy Scripture.”
Ronald Reagan, 40th President (1948 Ecumenical Prayer Breakfast)
“Without God there is not virtue because there is no prompting of the conscience; without God there is a coarsening of the society; without God democracy will not and cannot long endure. If we ever forget that we are One Nation Under God, then we will be a Nation gone under.”
Harry S. Truman, 33rd President (Attorney General’s Conference, 1950)
“The fundamental basis of this nation’s law was given to Moses on the Mount. The fundamental basis of our Bill of Rights comes from the teaching we get from Exodus and St. Matthew, from Isaiah and St. Paul. I don’t think we emphasize that enough these days.”
A few other notes:
- In the 19th century, there was a school that wanted to have a curriculum without religious content. Both the House of Representatives and the Senate rejected it, questioning, “How could you teach students wisdom without God as the source of wisdom? How could you teach them to be holy without the Spirit of God that we call holy?”
- In 1892 the Supreme Court stated: “The laws and institutions of this nation must be necessarily be based upon and embodied in the life and teachings of the Redeemer of Mankind. It is impossible that it should be otherwise.”
- In 1931, Supreme Court Justice George Sutherland reviewed a 1892 decision and reiterated that Americans are a “Christian people.”
- In 1952, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas affirmed that “We are a religious people and our institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.”
Lastly this, by French Historian Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), Author of “Democracy in America”:
“I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers, and it was not there; in the fertile fields and boundless prairies, and it was not there; in her rich mines and her vast world commerce, and it was not there.
Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power.
America is great because America is good — and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”
If the teacher believed that all Christians were damned and hung up posters proclaiming as such in his public school classroom, would you also find this to be protected by the Free Exercise Clause?
Going for a bit of an extreme example, ain’cha Goober?
Of course I am. I’m just trying to develop the Free Exercise Clause argument a little further, though. It seems to me that if a public school teacher has the right, during the performance of his duties, to exercise their religion without restriction, then you can’t have an exception for conveying a particularly offensive religious message. I think that’s the logical conclusion if the government “cannot prohibit a person from exercising their religion — NO MATTER WHAT!” (except per Reynolds)
(I’d of course argue that the Ninth Circuit correctly held that in both the actual case and my hypothetical, the teacher was speaking in his capacity as a public employee and therefore did not have the same right of free expression as he would as a private citizen.)
I like extreme examples because they make you think. Here is what I think the difference is:
Reynolds’ banner was “generically” religious in that it didn’t say “[The God of Christians] Bless America” or “Allah Bless America,” even if that is how Reynolds might have personally perceived it. Your example is “specifically” religious in that it targets a certain religious view (all Christians go to hell).
Why this distinction? The First Amendment says that Congress (and the Fourteenth Amendment extends the restriction to state and local governments) may make no law respecting “an establishment of religion,” rather than they may make no law respecting “religion.” The Amendment was created to prevent the government from favoring one denomination (of Christianity, though it could apply to any religion) over another. However, Congress firmly believed in the necessity of religion in classrooms (see article), though they never tried to legislate it.
Now, if you say that atheism is not a religion, a sign like this should pose no constitutional violation since it’s not endorsing one “establishment” of religion over another. If you claim atheism to be a religion in its own right, then it could be argued that prohibiting a sign that mentions God is favoring the establishment of atheism.
But while it personally frustrates me to see how little tolerance people have for religion, especially considering that our country is nearly 80% Christian, 85% affiliated religious, and only 1.6% atheist (whatever happened to will of the majority? It seems ridiculous that because one person feels “uncomfortable,” the rest must bow to their whims. I could understand if this was a human rights violation we were dealing with, but it’s not), what bothers me most is the frequent use of “separation of church and state” as support for the verdict, and that people now think (as a 1958 judge feared when he ordered lawyers to “stop using that phrase or else people will think it’s part of the Constitution!”) that it’s part of the Constitution. The point I wished to make is that it’s not, that it’s only a private opinion that has been corrupted by isolating a phrase from the main context, and that if courts feel they can rule based on such a phrase, then they should be able to rule based on these other quotes as well.
“That means that our government cannot establish a national religion, and MORE IMPORTANTLY cannot prohibit a person from exercising their religion — NO MATTER WHAT! (The only exception is when a religion calls for human sacrifice or polygamy or something like that, in which case the government can interfere, according to an 1879 Supreme Court ruling). Contrary to what that judge may have thought, teachers have EVERY Constitutional right to display such banners in their classroom!”
This little bit really makes it sound like you think judges are only wrong when they disagree with you. In one breath you give an example of the Supreme Court’s ability to rule in cases involving the first amendment–limiting the practices of human sacrifice and polygamy–and in the next breath you claim that the same body is mistaken about their interpretation of constitutional rights.
For the lazy, here’s a link with an excellent picture of the banner in question: http://www.latimes.com/media/photo/2011-09/327245060-14080101.jpg
So, all this rhetoric about how you think all our presidents and founding fathers were men of deep prayer aside, what do you think about that banner?
My mistake, it was a ruling from the 9th circuit, not the supreme court.
Is it noteworthy that in the case of human sacrifice and polygamy, we’re talking about things which are illegal without considering exercise of religion? Hanging a banner is typically not an illegal act, thus, can be protected under free exercise, but killing a fellow citizen is illegal, thus cannot legally be performed as part of a religious exercise, the argument could go.
So, all this rhetoric about how you think all our presidents and founding fathers were men of deep prayer aside, what do you think about that banner?
Matt, I am not saying that the banner is not in poor taste (personally, I would resent any sign that big in my classroom, be it “Do your homework!” to “You’re the best!”). If the sign was smaller, say, bumper-sticker size, would it bother you as much? The ability to post one is (or should be) the same as the ability to post the other.
The court got it right.
Separation of church and state is a bedrock principle of our Constitution much like the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances. In the Constitution, the founders did not simply say in so many words that there should be separation of powers and checks and balances; rather, they actually separated the powers of government among three branches and established checks and balances. Similarly, they did not merely say there should be separation of church and state; rather, they actually separated them by (1) establishing a secular government on the power of the people (not a deity), (2) saying nothing to connect that government to god(s) or religion, (3) saying nothing to give that government power over matters of god(s) or religion, and (4), indeed, saying nothing substantive about god(s) or religion at all except in a provision precluding any religious test for public office. They later buttressed this separation with the First Amendment, which constrains the government from undertaking to establish religion or prohibit individuals from freely exercising their religions. The basic principle, thus, rests on much more than just the First Amendment.
That the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the text of the Constitution assumes much importance, it seems, to some who may have once labored under the misimpression it was there and, upon learning they were mistaken, reckon they’ve discovered a smoking gun solving a Constitutional mystery. To those familiar with the Constitution, the absence of the metaphor commonly used to name one of its principles is no more consequential than the absence of other phrases (e.g., Bill of Rights, separation of powers, checks and balances, fair trial, religious liberty) used to describe other undoubted Constitutional principles.
James Madison, who had a central role in drafting the Constitution and the 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 even as new principles are proclaimed, old habits die hard and citizens and politicians could tend 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 actions 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.”
It is important to distinguish between “individual” and “government” speech about religion. The constitutional 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 in any particular circumstance may sometimes be difficult, making the distinction is critical.
You speak of the religious views of various founders. While those views are subjects of some uncertainty and controversy, it is safe to say that many founders were Christian of one sort or another. In assessing the nature of our government, though, care should be taken not to make too much of various founders’ individual religious beliefs. Their individual beliefs, while informative, are largely beside the point. Whatever their religions, they drafted a Constitution that establishes a secular government and separates it from religion as noted earlier. This is entirely consistent with the fact that some founders professed their religiosity and even their desire that Christianity remain the dominant religious influence in American society. Why? Because religious people who would like to see their religion flourish in society may well believe that separating religion and government will serve that end and, thus, in founding a government they may well intend to keep it separate from religion. It is entirely possible for thoroughly religious folk to found a secular government and keep it separate from religion. That, indeed, is just what the founders did.
It is instructive to recall that the Constitution’s separation of church and state reflected, at the federal level, a “disestablishment” political movement then sweeping the country. That political movement succeeded in disestablishing all state religions by the 1830s. (Side note: A political reaction to that movement gave us the term “antidisestablishmentarianism,” which amused some of us as kids.) It is worth noting, as well, that this disestablishment movement largely coincided with another movement, the Great Awakening. The people of the time saw separation of church and state as a boon, not a burden, to religion.
This sentiment was recorded by that same famous observer of the American experiment you quote: “On my arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention. . . . I questioned the members of all the different sects. . . . I found that they differed upon matters of detail alone, and that they all attributed the peaceful dominion of religion in their country mainly to the separation of church and state. I do not hesitate to affirm that during my stay in America, I did not meet a single individual, of the clergy or the laity, who was not of the same opinion on this point.” Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835).
The notion that the Constitution sought merely to prevent establishment of one denomination over another simply does not square with the amendment’s language or evidence of the founders’ intent. First, (as should be especially appreciated by modern day show-me-the-words-separation-of-church-and-state literalists) note no mention in the text of “Christianity” or “denomination” or anything of the sort. Second, note that the word “religion” is uttered once–setting the scope of both the establishment clause and the free exercise clause. If the text is read so that the term “religion” means only a “national Christian denomination” or the like (thus limiting the scope of the establishment clause as you suppose), violence is done to the free expression clause, which then would merely constrain Congress from making a law prohibiting the free exercise “thereof”–i.e., a national Christian denomination–and leave it free to interfere with the exercise of any and all other religious beliefs. Silly.
While the founders were, no doubt, confronted with the need to address competition and conflict between a variety of sects (largely but not exclusively Christian) and some (but hardly all) founders were motivated by that perceived need to support separation of church and state, it is a non sequitur to suppose therefore that they intended merely to stop the government from favoring one “sect” (however defined), but leave it free to favor some (also undefined) grouping of sects (e.g., “generic” Christianity or perhaps monotheism, or theism, or deism, or some such).
Any such interpretation, moreover, would raise so many problems that I tire at the thought of listing them. For instance, where and how would one distinguish sects or groups of sects? Christianity comprises dozens or even hundreds of sects depending on how one draws the lines. And why stop with Christianity since there are other monotheistic religions? Would it be okay for the government to support Islam as long as it refrained from choosing the Sunni or Shiite sect? And even if one wished to stop with Christianity, how does one draw the line around that? For instance, some question whether Mormonism is a “Christian” sect.
While the First Amendment undoubtedly was intended to preclude the government from establishing a national religion as you suggest, that was hardly the limit of its intended scope. The first Congress debated and rejected just such a narrow provision (“no religion shall be established by law, nor shall the equal rights of conscience be infringed”) and ultimately chose the more broadly phrased prohibition now found in the Amendment. In keeping with the Amendment’s terms and legislative history and other evidence, the courts have wisely interpreted it to restrict the government from taking steps that could establish religion de facto as well as de jure. Were the Amendment interpreted merely to preclude government from enacting a statute formally establishing a state church, the intent of the Amendment could easily be circumvented by government doing all sorts of things to promote this or that religion–stopping just short of cutting a ribbon to open its new church.