A couple of items have appeared in the news which, when juxtaposed, go a long way to show just who the real threat is in the Church/State debate of recent decades. I’d like to excerpt these stories and make some comments. But first, we do well to recall the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution:
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 part that concerns us here are the first two clauses, the establishment clause and the free exercise clause.
It will be noted that the oft repeated phrase, “separation of church and state” does not occur here and it occurs nowhere in the U.S. Constitution. Such a phrase is an interpretation of the First Amendment and is used by most moderns increasingly to mean that religious expression has no place in the public square or in any Government sponsored or affiliated setting. Of course this is a novel idea and any reading of history up until the most recent of times finds such a radical notion almost wholly lacking in public discourse.
Clearly the “establishment clause” forbids the State to endorse as its own official Church any particular faith, or sectarian denomination. But the same amendment forbids the State to act in such a way as to prohibit the free exercise of religion.
As written the Amendment seems more aimed at protecting the church and citizens from the power of the State to either pressure a particular religious observance, or forbid the same.
Many moderns however see the First Amendment as protecting the State and citizens from religious influence of any sort. Historically this represents a shift and, I would argue, a misinterpretation of the purpose of the First Amendment. Ultimately it is not the State that needs protection, it is the Church and the religiously observant who need freedom, both from coercion, and forbiddence.
Some also misuse and, I would argue, misinterpret the First Amendment to mean that the Church and faith should have absolutely no influence in open society, and that the government should somehow protect them from having to experience the annoyance of any public religious expression, or practice. Further, that the religiously observant have no right to be active in the political process and that government should utterly ignore all religious points of view, simply because they are religious.
But the religiously observant have just as much a right to free speech and to petition the Government as any other group. That some find our presence annoying or objectionable is quite beside the point. I, as everyone, find many points of view annoying and objectionable. But that does not give me a basis to demand that they be ejected from the public square simply for that. And neither do the religiously observant lose their First Amendment rights merely because some find us an annoyance to their secular views.
In the end, the First Amendment exists to enhance and protect free speech and religious expression, not hinder it. Further the amendment is an action on the State and a limit to its power to act. It is the Church, and the religiously observant, who are protected. To the degree that there can be no establishment of a State Religion, secularists are also protected, but they are not and cannot be protected from any religious influence in the public square.
And this background leads to a couple of stories in the news recently that illustrate the debate and what the real threat ultimately is. (My remarks are in red).
Here is an excerpt from an MSNBC and AP story
Rhode Island’s governor said Tuesday that lawmakers upset with his decision to call the blue spruce erected in the Statehouse a “holiday tree” instead of a “Christmas tree” should focus their energy on feeding the poor.
The Governor’s comment on feeding the poor is insulting, and sidesteps the fact that the Legislature had voted last year, when a similar controversy came up, that the tree should be termed by its traditional name: “Christmas Tree.” Hence the Governor is ignoring the directive of the duly elected and empowered to Legislature. So there is more to the story than his response indicates.
According to Gov. Lincoln Chafee, calling the tree a “holiday tree” instead of a “Christmas tree” is in keeping with Rhode Island’s founding in 1636 by religious dissident Roger Williams as a haven for tolerance, where government and religion were kept separate.
Tolerance it would seem, for the Governor, is for everyone but Christians who had better shut up about Christ at Christmas time.
Chafee insists he’s just respecting the state’s history as a place respectful of all religions. The colony’s hands-off policy toward religion quickly attracted sects that had been persecuted elsewhere. Rhode Island boasts both the nation’s first Baptist church and the oldest surviving Jewish synagogue.
Fine, but the usual way of handling such things is to allow various expressions. For example, even here in crazy Washington, the display at the ellipse features a Christmas tree, a Nativity set, a large Jewish Menorah (Chanukah lights), a Yule Log, I have even seen some commemorations of the Winter Solstice (Druids?).
As a Christian, I do not insist that the Menorah be renamed a “Holiday Lampstand” or that the Yule Log (with its roots in European paganism) be called a holiday log, or that those who celebrate a solstice event must call it a “Holiday Sundown Hoedown” That would all be silly. And the Governor is also being silly and selective.
I can understand (though not agree with) secularists who would like any and all religious displays to disappear from government buildings. But let them engage the political process like any other group. Most High Court decisions do not agree that displays on Government lawns and public squares amount to an establishment of religion. But let the secularists get politically active if they want to try an influence public policy and work their wishes through the legislatures. We too will do the same.
But Meanwhile, a Christmas tree, so called and ordered so named by the elected legislators is no real threat to anyone, especially when other displays are allowed. It may annoy some, but freedom from annoyance is not a constitutional right or something the Government can or should protect everyone from.
But here IS a real threat to the first Amendment and summarized in an article at the Cardinal Newman Society
The monks of Belmont Abbey College sued (HHS) because the government left them no choice. The government is forcing these devout monks to purchase certain drugs for their students and employees, in violation of their religious convictions. For example, the government now requires the college to purchase Plan B (the “morning-after pill”) and ella (the “week-after pill”) for their students. These drugs likely cause abortions, which is a grave sin to the monks. It is one thing for the government to decide it should distribute these drugs itself, which of course is not part of this new law. But it is quite another for the government to mandate that religious Americans with conscientious objection purchase these drugs and participate in their distribution.
The law also forces the college to pay for “related education and counseling” about these drugs. The monks may preach to their students against abortion and contraception on Sunday morning, but on Monday the feds will make the college pay for a counselor to send the exact opposite message to its students. The First Amendment forbids this type of forced speech and burden on religious exercise.
We have detailed here before the mounting threats to Religious Freedom in this country (Just click in the “religious liberty” tag below). For all the talk in recent decades about what a terrible threat religious expression is to the so called “separation of Church and State,” the real threat comes from the government, not the Church. For the government has the power to coerce by fining, penalizing, disqualifying and decertifying Church and religious run institutions who do not tow the line in some of the government’s favorite social stances such as abortion, gay “marriage” and so forth. As can be seen, once again, the Church must go to court to defend our right not to be coerced to pay for and endorse things we consider immoral.
Such threats are mounting and, even should we win some of these cases, we will not win them all. Religious freedom will gradually erode. And even when we do win, the sheer number and complexity of these cases presents an enormous financial and legal burden on the Church, which is having to fight on dozens of fronts in jurisdictions across the country at the Federal, State and local level.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.