Who is a Threat to Whom? More Attacks to Religious Freedom and the Real Purpose of the First Amendment

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.

37 Replies to “Who is a Threat to Whom? More Attacks to Religious Freedom and the Real Purpose of the First Amendment”

  1. I agree that the whole tree name business is laughable. I don’t think anyone admitingly has in their home a “holiday tree” instead of a Christmas tree, so how do they exist? I refer you to a wonderful piece written by Ben Stein about the issue a few years back: http://benstein.com/121805xmas.html

    For me though, if I didn’t see Santa Claus, Christmas trees or festive lights decorating my city in December, I wouldn’t care. The battle over the monks being forced to provide drugs that run counter to our beliefs is a real issue that should be worked on. Our focus should be on keeping secular mandates out of Catholic institutions more-so than worrying about if our holidays get publicly recognized in the correct way (which the tree in general hardly does). I don’t think we need to race to the first-ammendment card over tree names, I think that’s hardly what Jesus cares about. In picking battles, the right to bear Christmas trees is pretty low on my list compared to the monks. I don’t see it as an intrusion on the rights of religion, just another ridiculous government compromise that solves everyone’s problems but pleases no one.

  2. If secularists want public spaces to be deviod of religious display, then the religious should want public places deviod of secular displays, such as corporate and sports logos to include advertisements and ‘public service announcements” . If my God is to be banished, then under their separation clause so should theirs.

  3. Just so you know, Monsignor, the Yule Log is part of the Pagan celebration of the Solstice, which is sometimes also referred to as Yule. I don’t know if it has anything to do with the Druids, but I doubt it.

  4. While the coercion of the monks is the more immediately serious threat to religious freedom, I would not dismiss the Christmas tree issue. The overall process is one in which religious beliefs will be pushed farther and farther into the periphery. When we push religious observance to the periphery more outrageous assaults become more possible. I think most people would not have imagined this kind of coercive attack on the Church ( forcing it to fund contraception and abortifacients) occuring in say 1981. I dare say the country that elected Ronald Reagan by landside proprotions would not have stood for it, and indeed Reagan doign this kind of thing would be unimaginable. The ground work for this occurs bit by bit over time and includes the kind of overall indoctrination of the public with the idea that religious observance is meant to be a very private thing, you can pray, you can read in your room, under controleld conditions you might even be able to pray in a Church, but beyond that your beliefs must not alter any other behavior. The left demands not just that we leave them alone, but that we call sins rights and show our fealty with our behavior. ( That was what gay marriage is all about, and that is what the contraception is all about)

    It is true there is likely to be more of this kind of thing. Still it can not be repeated enough… Elections matter. It is not an accident that this is occuring under the current administration. The facts are these: President Obama who was a know supporter of unlimited abortion rights, and indeed one could argue pretty much a socialist in outlook, appointed someone of similar views, at least in regard abortion, as secretary of HHS ( Katheleen Sebelius) Sec Sebilius has now issued regulations as part of the power giver her by Obamacare, that require Catholic organizations to pay for contraception, etc.) If any, and I mean any, Republican was President it is obvious that this would not be occuring, because the HHS secretary would not be so empowered.

    To get such an assault one must marry the pro-abortion philosophy to a view of government that places few limits on government power. ( why is it the role of the federal goverment to be mandating what insurance companies cover at all? ) We have brought this on ourselves ( at least the 54% of Catholics who choose to elect the current administration., not to mention the Catholic Health Association who baked Obamacare, and finally those “prolife Democrats” like Rep Stupak who caved on their vote for Obamacare. Beyond this keep in mind the executive branch appoints the judges who interpret what the first amendment means. It matters little what the founders intended unless there are judges appointed to office who think what the founders intended is the criteria by which you interpret the contitution ( Ala Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas) if on the other hand you have judges appointed who have a more expansive view of how to interpret the consitution, that sees it as a “living document” ,then you can predict that the First amendment will “mean” what these judges say it means. Historically they have said it means people have a right to be “free from religion” ( thats why we no longer pray in the public schools….) It is obvious that the democrats appoint judges of the this variety ( ala Kagan, And Ginsberg on the Supreme Court, and their kin on the federal bench) While the Republicans appoint ( more often at least) judges with a more originalist view of the constitution like Scalia and Thomas, or Allito. Unfortunately the Democrats are much more reliably liberal than the Republicans are conservative, and that places us at a disadvantage. ( At one time Chaffe was a Republican, however he left the party, and he now is an Independent)

    So rather than lament all this… you have the power to change some of it via the electoral process, if you are not doing this, expect lots worse to come. It will not due to treat this as if the assualt is coming from some unknown direction, or from all sides, it is coming pretty much from the political left. Lincoln Chaffe was of course formerly a Republican, he is now and “Independent”. Obama and Sebelius are of course Democrats. The choices seem pretty clear to me.

  5. Thank you Msgr Pope. To retain ones rights, one must exert them. For example, I have a crucifix and an icon of the Virgin Mary in my cubicle at work along with the Miraculous Medal, a list of the Ten Commandments and a drawiing of Christ crowned with thorns and a picture of Jesus Christ and His Most Sacred Heart. Also, I have submitted complaints to my corporate HQ about unblocking the USCCB’s site on abortion [it was being blocked by WebSense censors]. They unblocked it.

    The key here is for folks to be bold about expressing their beliefs in public. If we cower and hide and form two separate identities, we begin to fail as disciples – we begin to lose our prefered identities as children of God and become more and more like children of mammon.

    This is not easy to do, and one must be cautious and also very respectful of others particular beliefs.

  6. ” ( why is it the role of the federal goverment to be mandating what insurance companies cover at all? )”

    Excellent question.

  7. Much of this comes down to an erroneous concept of separation of church and state. In American history, this concept (which is from Jefferson, it is not in the Constitution or Bill of Rights) was NEVER about stripping all religious symbols, imagery or influence from public life. That is the Communist rendering of the concept, and it led to brutal, hideous repression in pursuit of their unabashed goal to remove all religion from the world. They even used the phrase “separation of church and state” in their so-called constitutions. Did you know that?

    And they harassed, jailed, tortured and even murdered their own citizens, from bishops to laity, as they pursed their goal of the removal of all public religious expression and influence, hoping for the removal of all religious sentiment from the hearts of the people. They combined this with intense atheistic propaganda campaigns in the education of children and all other manner of harassment.

    What they meant by separation of church and state was actually control and destruction of the church by the state (or so they thought – they are long gone, and the church still lives in their former domains!).

    The interpretation of “separation of church and state” that rabid secularists and militant atheists are pressing for today is the direct descendent of this communist ideology. We ignore the parallels at our peril.

  8. PS – I say “they are long gone,” but that is not so everywhere, of course…. They continue in some nations, and their ideas and their proteges apparently are more numerous than we thought!

  9. As an HR professional, I’m generally opposed to government-mandated benefits on the grounds that such mandates can be expensive and/or an ineffective use of a company’s resources.

    Furthermore I find it puzzling that anyone who works for a Catholic organization would resent a lack of coverage for contraceptives or domestic partners. The Church’s long-standing position on these issues is very clear. The Church isn’t clapping anyone in chains and dragging them in to work for their schools, hospitals, and social-service agencies. If one wants health coverage that conflicts with Church teaching, then don’t work for a Church-affiliated organization.

  10. Msgr,
    Here is a great write up done by Kevin Gutzman (other books of his are “Who Killed the Constitution” & “Politically Incorrect Guide to the Constitution”) on the ‘faith of our fathers” http://takimag.com/article/faith_of_our_fathers/#axzz1fK3EusxQ

    I jokingly tell friends that ‘separation of church & state’ today would be like an email to one yet somehow people think that is law hahaha. They don’t know that the founders wanted religion taught in schools.

    Great write up, Msgr!

  11. I wonder if Governor Chafee knows that “holiday” is an alternate pronunciation of “Holy Day” according to Webster, Oxford and other reputable dictionaries. The meaning of the word holiday has evolved, by common usage, to include any temporary exemption from certain responsibilities, such as work, but the true meaning is Holy Day. Those who try to trick God with word games, or whatever, will inevitably discover to their great discomfort that God is in charge – no matter what they do. That doesn’t mean that we should lie back and expect Him to take care of us when we all have immediate & direct access to Him, through prayer, to ask what work He has for us in His concerns. Maybe the human “big shots” are jealous that they can’t provide a hot line to everyone under their mandate while insuring that the work gets done within the framework of their followers’ free will. Too bad.
    In the legal dispute with the monks who are being mandated to provide drugs for the purpose of killing of human beings, the main post refers to the huge legal costs on this and other matters (” … the enormous financial and legal burden on the Church, …”) But there’s more. What about the increasingly burdened taxpayer who has to fund the state’s legal costs and the further costs of maintaining and operating the court system. At least that part tied up in lengthy discussions of fine points of theology and medical access when the legal system is rapidly losing it’s ability to keep the streets safe enough for the average citizen to walk on in broad daylight.
    As an aside on Erin’s comments on the Communist’s enforced atheism one can look to the lessons from those who experienced it, such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who reported how the state filled the void left as a result of atheism (as if anything man made could ever hope to fill a “God sized hole”) and became a twisted version of a pseudo deity; thereby portraying themselves as perfect.
    This seems to very much be the goal of the latest socialist trends which force their benefits on the recipients, whether these recipients are willing, sometimes unwilling or have been deluded into a false belief of willingness by abuse of behavioural psychology.
    Saul Alinsky’s seemingly unholy disciples? If they’re as heavily involved as it is beginning to appear then who’s gospel are they spreading?

  12. I like your idea about changing the word marriage to matrimony. Why don’t we do the same for Christmas?

    1. In Saudi Arabia, all citizens are rqreieud to be Muslims, and the public practice of other religions is forbidden. Private practice of other religions is sometimes allowed and sometimes persecuted; there is no law protecting even this.Iran is officially a Twelver Shiite state. Some other religions (Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism) are permitted, but are not allowed to proselytize; and they are sometimes persecuted even if they don’t. The Bahai faith is not allowed at all. Sunni Muslims are subject to some restrictions also.In China, all religious organizations have to be authorized by the government. This has given rise to conflict when the government appoints religious leaders different from what the religion itself chooses. There are state-appointed Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, Taoist, and Muslim leaders. These are not always approved by the religious organizations outside of China. Those who practice religion outside these state-approved organizations are subject to severe persecution.In Turkey, since the secularization by Ataturk in the early 20th century, the government permits all religions but keeps them all under close surveillance. Special religious clothing (the veil, the fez) is not permitted to be worn in public. Turkey is predominantly Muslim, and there is some prejudice against other religions.In North Korea, virtually no religious practice is allowed except a limited amount by foreigners. Worship is considered a political offense.Cuba was for years officially atheist, and religious practice was seriously discouraged, with some persecution. But now religious people are even allowed to join the Communist Party. The government is secular rather than atheist, and religious practice is pretty much free.These are a few varied examples of governments which have restricted religious practice. In our time, the States that restrict religious freedom are mostly Muslim or Atheist.I can’t think of any other belief system that does this in modern times.Religion is the source of meaning and values for many people, and restricting it restricts the growth of the human soul. In countries where a religion is imposed, it loses some of its growth potential. In countries where religion is not restricted or mandated by the government, it flourishes and leads to better values and ways of life.

  13. 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. Given the norms of the day, the founders’ avoidance of any expression in the Constitution suggesting that the government is somehow based on any religious belief was quite a remarkable and plainly intentional choice. They later buttressed this separation of government and religion 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.

    To the extent that some nonetheless would like confirmation–in those very words–of the founders’ intent to separate government and religion, Madison and Jefferson supplied it. 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.”

    1. seems like Madison was alone (with the possible exception of Jefferson, who by the way often referenced God in official correspondence) in the setting forth of such an extreme interpretation.

      1. Hardly extreme. 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 a famous observer of the American experiment: “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).

        1. Not sure what the de toqueville quote accomplishes. Also there is even a batter word in the modern dictionary than the one you cite: pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconisis . It ws in my websters collegiate dictionary in college and indicated briwn lung disease.

          All that aside, religious expression even in at the highest levels of government is in place even unto this this day despite your wishful thinking to the contrary. It is simply not as radically interpreted as your state by any except a few of the past and other modern day secularists.

        2. 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.

          You make some good points, and certainly some on the right seem to want to ignore the ” no…establishment of religion” part of the clause. Any plain reading of the 1st Amendment clearly leads you to understand that the intent of the clause is to limit the power of government.
          But what this article is about is that there are some people out there who use of the idea of separation of church and state to subvert the amendment by giving the government power to restrict free exercise of religion.
          Separation of church and state does not mean that no member of government should have religious beliefs. Clearly, at the time of the framing of the Constitution, it was assumed that most, if not all, men who chose to serve in government (and at that point the idea that service was what government was about was taken more seriously) had religious beliefs, and that those beliefs would in fact make them better servants of the people.

          1. I agree with you that some (on both “sides” of the issue actually) misunderstand or misuse the idea of separation of church and state. Contributing to confusion is that there is a principle of constitutional law and a broader political doctrine–both going by the same name, separation of church and state.

            With respect to the former, it is important to distinguish between the “public square” and “government” and 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.

            Nor does the constitutional separation of church and state prevent citizens from making decisions based on principles derived from their religions. Moreover, the religious beliefs of government officials naturally may inform their decisions on policies. The principle, in this context, merely constrains government officials not to make decisions with the predominant purpose or primary effect of advancing religion; in other words, the predominant purpose and primary effect must be nonreligious or secular in nature. A decision coinciding with religious views is not invalid for that reason as long as it has a secular purpose and effect.

            Wake Forest University recently published a short, objective Q&A primer on the current law of separation of church and state as applied by the courts. I commend it to you. http://tiny.cc/6nnnx

          2. Doug,
            Pretty much agree with everything you have said except “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.” Absolutely, if they are abusing their position to advance the interests of any particular religious institution, or to discrimate against any other. Their actions should never imply the endorsement of the state of any particular religion. However, if one is serious about one’s faith, then that has to influence everything that you do. Of course, if your faith requires that you seek to FORCE your religion on anyone else, then you can not really honestly take an oath of office in this country. No Christian seeks to force his faith on anyone else (although I know some throughout history who called themselves Christians have, their motivations had nothing to do with Christian faith).
            Wondering whether you object to the main point of the article, which is that some people in government ARE abusing their positions by restricting free practice of religion, or if it is just that you don’t like the argument about the phrase “separation of church and state” not actually being used in the Constitution?
            Thanks for the link! Hope you assesment of “objective” is correct.

          3. I focused my comments to respond to the more general subject of whether the Constitution provides some measure of separation of government and religion.

            The issue raised in the article about the government requiring or prohibiting something that conflicts with someone’s faith is entirely real, but not new. Nor is it unique to Christians or Catholics–hardly. The courts have occasionally confronted such issues and have generally ruled that the government cannot enact laws specifically aimed at a particular religion (which would be regarded a constraint on religious liberty contrary to the First Amendment), but can enact laws generally applicable to everyone or at least broad classes of people (e.g., laws concerning traffic, pollution, taxes, contracts, fraud, negligence, crimes, discrimination, employment, and on and on) and can require everyone, including those who may object on religious grounds, to abide by them. Were it otherwise and anyone could opt out of this or that law with the excuse that their religion requires or allows it, the government and the rule of law could hardly operate. Thus, the government can forbid discrimination against specified people and apply that law even to those who say their religion allows or requires them to discriminate. And the government can adopt land use laws and apply them to regulate where churches are located. In rare (one hopes) circumstances, such a generally-applicable law could put an individual in an ethical Catch-22 if it requires one to take actions one considers immoral. For just this reason, when such binds can be anticipated, provisions may be added to laws affording some relief to conscientious objectors.

            Here, the issues raised by the Belmont Abbey College are particularly thorny because there are strongly held views on each side. On one hand, the monks object that they should not be required as employers to provide their employees with health plans that include medications and services conflicting with their religious beliefs. On the other hand, the government has established laws of general application designed to implement important policies regarding health and discrimination that require all employers to provide such health plans (if they provide any plans at all) to their employees. I think the courts will likely rule, along the lines described above, that the First Amendment does not preclude the government from enforcing these laws even against those with religious objections and thus leave the issue to be resolved in the political arena.

        3. Doug,

          To understand the Constitution in context, you have to keep in mind what the founders were concerned with – restricting the State, in all cases. They had no interest or intent on restricting freedom of religion or freedom of religious expression, their concern was solely to restrict the powers of the state. The “no establishment” clause of the first amendment, and even Jefferson’s “separation of Church and State” were intended to limit the powers of the government. Remember the founders had just rebelled against what was, in their opinion, a despotic government – not a despotic church. Jefferson himself said “I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct it’s exercises, it’s discipline, or it’s doctrines.” Jefferson’s concern was not that a Christmas tree might be set up, but that an overreaching government would limit the freedom of religion (including free religious speech) in the country. The separation of Church and State were put in place to avoid a government take over of the Church as happened in England (remember the founders were all proud Englishmen until 1776), not to prevent the free exercise of religion of any American, even of Christian Americans, even of elected Americans and certainly not to establish a “freedom FROM religion.”

          1. I agree with you that the founders sought to protect religious liberty. The issues, I think, are more nuanced than that–along the lines of the points I discussed in comments above.

            This commonly expressed objection about prepositions, noted at the end of your comment, leads nowhere. Freedom “of” religion encompasses each individual’s freedom “to” exercise his or her religion and freedom “from” government actions to promote or otherwise establish religion. There, all prepositions are fairly represented.

  14. “To the extent that some nonetheless would like confirmation–in those very words–of the founders’ intent to separate government and religion, Madison and Jefferson supplied it.”

    The Founding Fathers had a wide variety of religious beliefs, with one actually being (gasp!) a Catholic. However, every one of them, even Thomas Paine, would think Governor Chafee’s “Holiday Tree” absolutely idiotic (as would Roger Williams).

    As for your claim that America was intended to be a secular nation, here is the greatest of the Founding Fathers, in his Farewell Address at the end of his second term as the first president:

    “And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained witout religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

    Finally, with regard to Thomas Jefferson, let’s look at the specific issue here. If you ever suggested to Jefferson that the federal government had the power to force private religious employers to supply services to their employees that directly conflicted with the religious tenets of the employer, Jefferson would have horse-whipped you off the grounds of Monticello.

    1. Note there is a difference between a secular government and a secular nation. I agree with you that the founders would not establish a government that is inherently at odds with their religious convictions, which were largely Christian in nature. Moreover, given the republican nature of our government, I think it is only natural and expected that the laws enacted by our government–in both the founders’ time and today–largely reflect Christianity’s dominant influence in our society.

      That said, there is no reason to suppose that Christianity or theism is an inherent aspect of our constitutional government. Indeed, any such claim is antithetical to the constitutional principle against government establishment of religion. By founding a secular government and assuring it would remain separate, in some measure at least, from religion, the founders basically established government neutrality in matters of religion, allowing individuals to freely choose and exercise their religions and thus allowing Christianity (and other religions) to flourish or founder as they will. As noted above, it is to be expected that the values and views of the people, shaped in part by their religions, will be reflected in the laws adopted by their government. There is nothing in the Constitution that requires or calls for this; it is simply a natural outgrowth of the people’s expression of political will in a republican government. To the extent that the people’s values and views change over time, it is to be expected that those changes will come to be reflected in the laws adopted by their government. There is nothing in the Constitution to prevent this; indeed, just the opposite–the Constitution establishes a government designed to be responsive to the political will of the people. It is conceivable, therefore, that if Christianity’s influence in our society wanes relative to other influences, that may lead to changes in our laws. Nothing in the Constitution would prevent that–and moreover the establishment clause would preclude Christians from using the government to somehow “lock in” (aka establish) Christianity in an effort to stave off such an eventuality.

      1. I was wondering when someone would play the theocracy card. Look, this is not really difficult. Unelected bureaucrats decided they wanted to enforce the “correct” views regarding abortion and contraception. They are clearly doing this with the support of an Administration that lied when it said it intended to respect the consciences of those who hold a different view on these moral issues.

        And do you seriously believe that these regulations are not directed at religious institutions in order to try to force them to fall in line with the Administration’s views on this issue? These are not laws of general application in the sense of criminal or environmental laws.

        What about the human trafficking fiasco? Are you okay with the Administration trying to enforce its view on abortion in that situation, even though people toiling in modern slavery are going to suffer?

  15. Monsignor,

    Does not the attitude of secularists also conflict with the UN Declaration of Human Rights?

    The United Nations: Universal Declaration of Human Rights – Article 18 states:
    Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion;
    this right includes freedom to change their religion or belief,
    and freedom, either alone or in community with others,
    in public or in private,
    to manifest their religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

    Or does this only apply elsewhere, wherever that is?

    Keep up the good work and your insights,

    Kevin P

  16. The founding fathers had various views on religious matters, and most people pick the quotes that most closely support their own view, while others quote those who support theirs. However, if one is making arguments based on the fathers’ intent, it is a fact that none of the founding fathers were opposed to free public expression of religion, nor did they have the uniquely postmodern militant atheistic demand that people who are religious bifurcate their personalities and excise all religious expression and sentiment whenever they happen to be standing on public ground!

    The problem is that there are certain powerful groups in this nation that use the phrase/concept of separation in a way that was not intended by the framers of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and they misuse the phrase to try to impose a very unamerican kind of silencing of religious expression, a silencing that violates the free exercise clause. Their views do impact many people and the propaganda helps them ram through bad decisions.

    Instead of promoting everyone freely expressing their various beliefs, they want everyone to be silent and hidden. I’m sorry, but that is not American, besides being irrational. Freedom backed into a corner is not freedom.

    So that phrase is not, in the current political climate, merely a shorthand for the actual principles of the Constitution. It is a phrase being manipulated to abuse the Constitution or seek Constitutional cover for what is in fact harassment of the free expression of religion.

    We might notice also that if we are limiting the discussion strictly to Constitutional law, there is no mention of atheism or any right of atheists to be free from the mere exposure to public expression of religion. It’s just not in there. If militant atheists will not be happy until they never have to see or hear anything religious in a public context, they will have to create a tyranny to impose it. Wait, they already did that in the Communist nations. And we see how nice that was. (I say “militant atheists” deliberately, because not all atheists are on the same bandwagon.

    The parallels between the current militant atheist manipulation of the phrase/concept of separation, and the Communist rendering of it must be recognized because if we do not see the parallels, we may find ourselves surprised by mere annoyance or harassment becoming a kind of persecution, even if (one hopes) it is a soft persecution, not actual violence against religious believers.

    Considering the history of anti-Catholic exlusion, prejudice and even violence in the US, we must not be so foolish as to believe it can never happen here.

  17. I agree with you that some (on both “sides” of the issue actually) misunderstand or misuse the idea of separation of church and state. Contributing to confusion is that there is a principle of constitutional law and a broader political doctrine–both going by the same name, separation of church and state.

    With respect to the former anyway, it is important to distinguish, as I note in comments above, between the “public square” and “government” and between “individual” and “government” speech about religion.

  18. RE the difference between individual and government speeh:

    That raises another question or difficulty too, one in which we see that our nation’s laws alone don’t have the answer to every problem contained in relations in a pluralistic society. Let’s say I am a governor, and a truly fervent Catholic (or whatever!). I can’t ever express my faith in the line of my duty?

    Is there a way to truly and fully be who we are, while also respecting others? Is it really possible for people of really different, even clashing, views, to operate in one society without everyone having to more or less be one person in public and another in private? (That is unnatural and in my opinion it also leads to a lot of infidelity to Christ, which, as a Christian, matters to me immensely.) Surely there should be a way. Everyone having to “secularize” their speech and their actions when they’re at work or school is NOT an adequate approach. And this pressure is there in the business world, not to mention schools, not just the gov’t!

    I think atheists often don’t realize that for serious religious believers, the expression of faith is woven into everything and can’t just be set aside easily, nor should it be. Of course we are not talking about imposing our views on everyone else. But for me to, say, intentionally avoid using Jesus’ name in my daily talk just because non-Christians are around…well, that would be not only unnatural but in my opinion can become a kind of “being ashamed of the Gospel.”

    These are tough questions and they are getting tougher!

  19. Given the government’s overt hostility and declaration of war against Catholicism, is it time to remove the stars and stripes from Catholic buildings and only display the flag of the Vatican?

  20. No. The political system here gives us a means for addressing these issues. What we need is for over half of the Catholics in the country to stop voting into power people who have clearly identified themselves as enemies of the Faith.

  21. @Directions – funny, because I have been thinking about getting a Vatican flag and flying it on my car!

    But in all seriousness, removing the stars and stripes would be an act of hostility. It would also play into the anti-Catholic crowd…

    But I do think we all have to be prepared to choose whether to serve God or Mammon, because this nation has lost its direction entirely.

    Folks should go read Mark Shea’s comments at National Catholic Register (with a link to another blog of his) regarding the erosion of our rights (it’s in the context of an article about Newt’s candidacy). It’s truly frightening…

  22. I mean to say, removing the US flag would play into the hands of those who are against Catholics!

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