Church/State Separation

Written: 08/04/2013
Presented at a General Meeting of the ACLU-Charlotte

In 1788, the United States Constitution was ratified, replacing the Articles of Confederation, and in 1789, the United States of America was born. The Constitution significantly did not establish religion. The establishment of a secular government, based on Enlightenment Principles of Reason, was unique in the history of the world. It was a new day dawning. No longer would a king or church rule over the minds and bodies of the People by a claim of divine right.

This new government was based on the authority of “We the People” alone, deriving its “just powers from the consent of the governed.” Now, the People would elect their representatives in a democratic republic, and the freedom of conscience of the individual would be held sacrosanct. Article VI, paragraph 3, of the U.S. Constitution states that: “….no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” As George Washington observed, “In this enlightened Age and in this Land of equal liberty it is our boast, that a man’s religious tenets will not forfeit the protection of the Laws, nor deprive him of the right of attaining and holding the highest Offices that are known in the United States.”

In 1791, the Bill of Rights were adopted. These were the first 10 Amendments to the Constitution. The First Amendment reads in part: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and of the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia (on which the First Amendment was inspired and based), wrote that the First Amendment erected a “wall of separation between church and state.” He thought that mixing church and state would lead to the “corruption” of religion and “undermine all our civil rights,” and that keeping church and state separate was “absolutely essential in a free society.”

James Madison, known as the “Father of the Constitution,” and the “Architect of the Bill of Rights” expressed his interpretation of the First Amendment as a “perfect” separation between Church and State, commenting that: “The civil government … functions with complete success … by the total separation of the Church from the State,” and “I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that religion & Govt will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”

It was Madison who also warned: “Strongly guarded as is the separation between Religion and Government in the Constitution of the United States, the danger of encroachment by Ecclesiastical Bodies, may be illustrated by precedents already furnished in their short history.”

He was right to be worried….

During the Civil War era, eleven Protestant denominations began a campaign to add references to God to the U.S. Constitution and other federal documents. Their efforts resulted in the phrase “In God We Trust” being added to some Union coins.

In 1956, during the McCarthy era and Cold War “red scare” of communism, Congress passed a joint resolution making “In God We Trust” our National Motto. This replaced our former de facto National Motto, the Motto our Founders gave us, “E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One).” Two years earlier, the words “under God” had been inserted in between “one nation” and “indivisible” in the Pledge of Allegiance making those words into a lie.

Both the Motto and Pledge were originally secular and all-inclusive, now they were both made religious and exclusive.

In each case, these actions excluded anyone who didn’t believe in a monotheistic God, making them feel like second-class citizens in their own country.

Sadly, North Carolina takes this discrimination further. The North Carolina state constitution bars state office to “any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God.” This prohibition is ranked first, even above treason, in the state constitution (see: Article VI, Sec. 8. Disqualification for office).

In 1961, the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously that such restrictions constituted a religious test incompatible with the First and Fourteenth Amendment protections (see: Toraso v.Watkins) and are therefore unenforceable. Nevertheless, North Carolina, Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas retain restrictive religious requirements in their Bill of Rights, Declaration of Rights, or in their constitutions.

The problem with having such restrictions in the state constitution can be illustrated by the example of self-described “post theist” Cecil Bothwell. In 2009, Bothwell won the election for a position on the city council in Asheville, NC. He was challenged by his opponents on the basis that North Carolina law does not allow atheists to hold public office. Regardless of the fact the challenge was ultimately ineffective and irrelevant, based on federal law, it was still used as fodder against him and can be used against him in the future when he runs again. It can also be used against any other nonbeliever who might desire to run for office, intimidating them from running. The net result is: nonbelievers without adequate representation.

Some might argue that issues like these are holdovers from the past. Unfortunately, and most disturbingly, North Carolina’s current representatives on the state level seem intent on further flouting federal law and the U.S. Constitution.

For example, over the past couple of years they have been starting sessions with clearly sectarian prayers. In 2012, North Carolina politicians crafted and passed a law that restricted marriage to one man and one woman, based solely on religious ideas. In 2013, they have passed a bill, and the Governor has signed it, that restricts a woman’s constitutionally protected right to control her own reproductive system. Earlier in this last session, some attempted to have Christian Bible study included in public education and to even establish religion.

This flouting of federal law and the U.S. Constitution is not limited to the state level. There are other examples in cities and counties across the state, of sectarian invocations being sanctioned by government representatives. Two recent examples come from Forsyth and Rowan Counties, where their respective City Councils were sanctioning clearly sectarian prayers before their meetings. In both cases, legal action was required to bring a halt to it. This was costly for taxpayers and created dissension in the communities that were affected. While not as blatant, even the Charlotte City Council seems to push the boundaries of the law as far as possible with their invocations and they will dance over the line on occasion. They are certainly intentionally violating the spirit of the law, if not the letter. It is likely this kind of thing is happening in other city councils and public schools across the state.

In fact, there seems to be a concerted attempt to undermine and destroy the public school system. The North Carolina Legislator has passed a tax bill that applies to every school district in the State of North Carolina and which will allow for transferring money, our taxes, from the public school budget to fund vouchers which may be used at religious, as well as Charter schools.

There are even those hoping to subvert the public school system by engaging in a campaign to “implant after-school ‘Good News Clubs’ in every public elementary school in the United States.” Mathew Staver–President of Liberty Counsel and leader of the Child Evangelism Fellowship initiative–wrote that Good News Clubs are a “high-powered Sunday school which can now be established in the public schools immediately after school.” The Child Evangelism Fellowship now has Good News Clubs operating in public school systems in all 50 states, and there are currently at least three Good News Clubs operating in North Carolina. Two are located in Fuquay Varina and one in Indian Trail.

James Madison’s warning about “the danger of encroachment” should never be taken lightly. In the past several decades, religious fundamentalists have launched a concerted effort to revise history to suggest that this country was founded on Judeo-Christian principles despite the clear evidence to the contrary. In order to do this, they have propagated false, altered, or out-of-context quotes from founders to further their agenda and to rewrite history wherever and however they can. Many of them seem intent on establishing their religion by whatever means necessary, even if they have to lie and deceive to accomplish their objectives. They seem to be willing and able to dispense with their own prime directive of doing unto others as they would have done unto them in order to accomplish their goals.

They are a clear and present danger to our democratic republic, to freedom of conscience, and to our country’s founding ideals of equality, liberty, and justice for all.

As many others have said before, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” This is certainly the case here. We need to keep ourselves informed about the actions of individuals, groups and politicians who attempt, by whatever means, to break down the wall between church and state. We need to draw attention to it when we see it happening, and we need to act–and to encourage others to act–to stop it. We can act by speaking out against it, by organizing protests, by exercising our right to vote, and, where appropriate and possible, to take legal action to mitigate and remove these activities.

The encroachment of religion into government is a threat to everyone’s civil rights. It isn’t just a threat to the irreligious; it’s a threat to everyone. Note that our founders weren’t just concerned that religion might corrupt government, but they were also concerned that government might corrupt religion.

What is ultimately corrupted is the freedom of conscience and civil rights of the individual.