Friendly Reminder: ‘Separation of Church and State’ Does Not Exist

    302

    Let’s take a look at the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America:

    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 language of the Constitution is not very ambiguous here. It specifically prohibits Congress from making laws that will establish a religion for the United States. The historical reasoning is not very ambiguous either, with the Church of England serving as an example of government establishment of religion gone too far.

    Instead, however, many Americans believe in a mythical concept called “separation of church and state,” due mainly to a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptists. In it, Jefferson states:

    Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

    Those few words, on separation of church and state, are now taught as if they are constitutional language themselves. They are not. The intention of the First Amendment is to prohibit the government establishment (hence, the “Establishment Clause”) of a national church, not to limit the rights of God-fearing people to express themselves.

    Cut to 2017, and a war memorial is in the crosshairs in Maryland due to this imaginary rule that has become a catch-all for “government cannot show religious symbolism ever”:

    A divided U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond, Va., found that the Bladensburg World War I Veterans Memorial — known locally as the Peace Cross — “aggrandizes the Latin cross” to the point that an observer would conclude the government entity that owns it is endorsing Christianity.

    “The Latin cross is the core symbol of Christianity,” the court wrote in a 33-page opinion that included photographs of the memorial. “And here, it is 40 feet tall; prominently displayed in the center of one of the busiest intersections in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and maintained with thousands of dollars in government funds.”

    The 2-1 ruling reverses a 2015 district court decision that found the purpose of the cross is not primarily religious and that the site has been used almost exclusively for celebrating federal holidays.

    It’s worth noting that the Constitution lacks both an “endorsement clause” and an “aggrandizement clause.” The presence of a cross at a war memorial may constitute a certain reverence for Christianity, but most certainly not the establishment of a natural church. Welcome to constitutional law gone haywire.

    After all, there are plenty of crosses, as well as Islamic crescents and Stars of David, in Arlington National Cemetery. Certainly these are not going to be ripped out any time soon?