Thursday, December 1, 2011

Separation Church and State: What does it Mean?

Can the USA promote religion according to the constitution? This is a heated subject, which continues to arise. For instance,

• A three-judge panel of the court has upheld the Elmbrook School District's argument that holding graduation ceremonies at a church because of space and comfort for those attending did not promote religion.

Although I agree with the decision, I don’t with the rationale. For one thing, wherever Elmwood might have decided to hold its graduation, a philosophy or religion would have been present, even among those groups that reject the label of “religion.” If the graduation was held at the Secular Humanist Society, it could equally be argued that Elmwood was promoting the religion of Secular Humanism. After all, this belief system has its own values based upon the belief that humanity has the final say.

Even if Elmwood had merely rented a commercial hall, it could still be argued that this business is promoting the capitalistic ideal, which it is, at least indirectly!

Every decision and law implies morality and value judgments, unless decisions are merely about reacting animalisticly and mindlessly. Is it possible then for the State to not promote religion? Definitely not! Every law must be justified religiously/morally. It has to serve the moral ideal of the State, even if it’s just in terms of “the welfare of the people.”

However, we have different beliefs about the “welfare of the people.” Whose view is right? Secularists believe that there should be almost total freedom in the area of sexual expression and family. Christians believe that certain forms of sexuality will ultimately destroy the State and family. Secularists favor State control of education, while Christians would have the locality and family have greater input into the process.

Too often however, the Secularists define “religion” in a biased way in order to eliminate certain groups from the conversational table. They define Muslims, Hindus and Christians as “religions,” while they conveniently dissociate themselves from this label. This allows them to maintain their influence within the public forum while eliminating the competition.

These issues have become increasingly contentious as the budget and domain of State control has increased. Relations between church and State seem to be in the center of the conflict. Conflict has centered upon the question of the church’s role beyond its own pews.

Originally, this relationship had been defined by the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

What does it mean that Congress should not pass a law establishing a religion? For almost two hundred years, it meant just that – not passing a law making one denomination the State religion – and the vast majority was very happy with this separation.

Clearly, it was never understood that the Separation Clause would prevent the Federal Government from endorsing religious principles. For example, George Washington’s “Thanksgiving Day Proclamation” (1789) read:

• It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me “to recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness…

In fact, the Founding Fathers – a number of whom weren’t even Christians – all seemingly believed that the Biblical faith was essential to the well-being of their nation. However, things have changed. In the US Supreme Court 1947 decision Everson v. Board of Education, the majority ruled:

• The “establishment of religion” clause of the First Amendment means a t least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another…The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable. (Quoted from Wayne Grudem’s Politics According to the Bible, 34)

While the “establishment clause” forbade setting up a state religion, there was never any mention of the government not “aid[ing]” religion. Such an understanding would and does constitute unjust state favoritism of groups not formally considered religions. For instance, in NYC, a bill has been pushed to prevent churches from renting space at public schools. Meanwhile, this bill would not prohibit atheist or AA groups from renting space. This amounts to a violation of the principle of “equal access.”

Similarly, the US Supreme Court decision of Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) ruled that government actions,

• Must not have the primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion. (34)

Sadly, these faulty interpretations have been used hypocritically to silence the Christian voice in favor of a militaristic, totalitarian secular voice, which has promoted “values clarification,” religious pluralism, moral relativity, sexual freedom, and the diminishing of family influence. Even home-schooling and whatever is deemed politically incorrect have come under attack. It is ironic that the very “separation clause” that had guaranteed that the State would make no law “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion, would now be used to restrict parental rights to raise their children according to their faith.

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