By Rachel Alexander
Arizona Daily Wildcat
November 5, 1997

The Separation of Church and State


Arizona Daily Wildcat

Rachel Alexander

The separation of church and state - building a wall of separation between church and state." We hear this phrase all the time, but what does it mean, and where did it come from? The Supreme Court began using this expression about 50 years ago to interpret the religion clauses in the First Amendment. The First Amendment begins, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Clearly, the First Amendment was written to protect religious freedom, and to prevent the federal government from establishing one state religion, as exists in China today. In China, religious worshippers are prosecuted and sometimes tortured for practicing any faith other than the state religion.

Many of the early settlers and Founders of our country fled to the U.S. to escape religious oppression in their native countries. Therefore, prior to ratification of the Constitution, the Founders put this important religious protection from the government in the First Amendment. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has followed the cries of the extreme left wing in this country and has interpreted the religious establishment clause as not only preventing the government from establishing a state religion, but practically requiring the eradication of religion in the public arena.

The left-wing establishment pulled the quote "separation of church and state" out of context from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to a friend, and has used it as though it was part of the Constitution itself. However, Jefferson also said, "Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God?" Our American history is almost unique in the world with its close relationship between religion and state; people are free to practice their religion as they go about their daily life. To quote John Adams, "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people." This country has a history of prayer at the beginning of the legislative session in Congress, presidents calling for a day of Thanksgiving to God, references to God on our money and in the Pledge of Allegiance, and prayer in schools. If the Founders had found these traditions offensive, they would have had them struck down then. Today, Americans retain this strong association with religion. Recent Gallup polls show that 96 percent of Americans believe in God.

The extreme left advocates removal of even these time-honored traditions. In Allegheny County v. ACLU (1989), the Supreme Court held that a nativity scene in downtown Pittsburgh in front of the courthouse violated the religious establishment clause, even though there was also a Jewish menorah and a Christmas tree. How was this establishing a government religion? The extreme left and a few Supreme Court justices felt this display "endorsed" religion. Never mind that it did not endorse any ONE religion, or establish a state religion. The point was to avoid offending the non-religious.

School voucher programs allow parents to target their tax money to a private school instead of a public school. The radical left claims that this somehow "endorses" or "aids" religion, mixing church and state. Yet this logic can be taken to absurd conclusions. With the pervasive intrusions of the income tax system, tax breaks and the redistribution of wealth in every aspect of our lives now, the possibilities for claiming that religion is involved in a "public" arena are endless.

This same faction will rant and rave to protect the freedom of choice for a pregnant woman to abort her child, but the freedom of parents to choose a school for their children is somehow an alien notion. The conflict arises to begin with because it appears to be public money going toward a religious purpose. This apparent conflict could be avoided by removing government from the loop. Allow parents to keep their money for education without paying it to the government for redistribution. This solution is rarely considered because it would reduce government control.

The Arizona State Constitution says, "No public money or property shall be appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise or instruction, or to the support of any religious establishment." Likewise, if the voters want to rewrite the First Amendment through a constitutional amendment to restrict the relationship of government and religion, "to fit modern times," let them go ahead. That is the proper function of our democratic system. It is a violation of the separation of powers, however, when an activist majority on the Supreme Court panders to the partisan beliefs of the radical left and strikes down or alters the will of the people by judicial whim.

Lately, the Supreme Court has retreated from this irrational interpretation of the religious establishment clause, because of the realization that it was trampling on the religious freedom clause. They have backed away from some of their prior "tests," and have instead substituted less restrictive tests, such as the "neutrality" test, which provides that as long as a government statute is neutral on its face, even if it affects religion, it does not violate either of the religious clauses. This trend toward less government intrusion on the rights of the people to practice their religion freely, not just behind closed doors in secrecy, is a welcome shift from what was quickly becoming a countrywide religious cleansing.

Rachel Alexander is a second-year law student.


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