The True Meaning of Separation of Church and State

The True Meaning of Separation of Church and State

It seems that in the past few years some of us who favor the separation of church and state in our country (as was intended by the framers of the U.S. Constitution) have taken a somewhat different approach to this issue than has been traditional for secularists. Instead of arguing for a strict separation, some are instead utilizing a strategy that insists that all “religious” beliefs, including atheism (if atheism can be said to be a “religious belief”), must be treated equally. While I understand this strategy, and believe that at times it can have a positive effect on the discourse, I worry that ultimately it may undermine what should be our ultimate goal of government separating itself from religion, instead of government accommodating religion, but in a way that accommodates all “religions”.
A few examples of what I’m talking about are in order:
• In Bradford County Florida, the organization American Atheists built a monument to non-belief to go alongside a granite slab of the Ten Commandments that sits beside the Bradford County Courthouse. American Atheists had sued to have the Ten Commandments monument removed, but during mediation of the case they were told that they could construct their own “counter-monument” as it were, and so they did.
• The Satanic Temple of Detroit plans to place a holiday display on the lawn of the State Capitol in Lansing, Michigan, to send the message that all religions have the right to be seen and heard (they do, but NOT on public property).
• A six-foot tall “Festivus Pole” made from empty beer cans will be erected in the Florida State Capitol building this week as a protest against the recent placement of a Christmas nativity scene.

Even more alarming, the Supreme Court’s liberal wing seems to have embraced this approach. The case of Town of Greece v. Galloway involved a town in upstate New York that had the practice of starting its town meetings with a prayer, always given by a Christian clergyman and frequently invoking strictly Christian themes (as opposed to religious, but non-denominational themes). In a 5-4 decision the Court upheld this practice, but for the purposes of this essay I want to concentrate on the dissents in this case. Justice Breyer filed a dissent that argued that the Town should do more to make its legislative prayer inclusive of other faiths. Justice Kagan filed a dissent in which she stated that the Town’s practices could pass Constitutional muster if chaplains who gave the prayer were told it must be “non-denominational”, or if the Town invited Clergy from all different faiths to give the prayers, rather than focusing almost exclusively on Christian ministers. This line of reasoning is based on a troubling misreading of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. The Establishment Clause states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”, but the dissenters in “Town of Greece”, (and many others these days) seem to be interpreting this clause as if it said “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of any particular religion”. If you read the clause this way, it’s okay for “religion” in general to be established, so long as all religions are treated equally. But that’s not what the framers of the Constitution wrote. What they wrote prohibits the establishment of religion, period, and not just the raising to pre-eminence of any particular religion. And so the Town of Greece’s practice of starting its Town meetings with a prayer (i.e. any prayer) violates the Establishment Clause regardless of how open they are to allowing all religions to participate.
Now, in some ways I am sympathetic to this line of reasoning from secularists, for two reasons. One is that I suppose that having various religions represented in government activities is better than just having one, although it still violates the Establishment Clause. The other is that representation of multiple religions in the public sphere helps to remind all of us (especially Conservative Christians) of the pitfalls of any religious establishment. For example, the individual who petitioned for the Festivus Pole in the Florida State Capitol has said that his intent in doing so was not really to celebrate Festivus, but rather to make a political statement regarding the need for the separation of church and state. Then there’s the case of Valarie Hodges, a Louisiana State legislator who retracted her support for Governor Bobby Jindal’s school voucher program (which includes religious schools) after being informed that such vouchers could be applied to Muslim schools, having mistakenly equated “religious” with “Christian”. In this case, the inclusion of “all religions” led at least one legislator to belatedly embrace the concept of separation of church and state, even if her reasoning was somewhat less than salutary. This understanding goes back to James Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments”, in which the primary drafter of the Constitution warned those who would want to establish religion that, in the long run, you can never be sure exactly whose religion it is that might be established, and that it might not be yours.
Regardless of the above, secularists and all those who honor the intent of the Establishment Clause should resist the urge to accept the “let’s embrace all religions” concept. Instead we should remember that our goal, as outlined in the Constitution and in the contemporaneous writings of the Constitution’s framers, is to separate church and state; not to force government to recognize all religious beliefs, but to prevent government from establishing any religious beliefs. If we do so, we can hasten the day when our country realizes the words of John F. Kennedy when he said “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute…I believe in an America that is neither Catholic, Protestant, nor Jewish…” Note that Mr. Kennedy did not yearn for an America that is Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish, but one that is none of those things, that is, where religion, and not just any particular religion, can be privately practiced, but is not established by the government in any way.


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