Christmas Eve, and once again the newspapers are full of commentary about the “separation of church and state”, which, they say, is enshrined in the United States Constitution.
Perhaps this Christmas Eve is a good time to actually read what is in the U.S. Constitution, specifically the First Amendment, which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
Most folks, reading this amendment, will agree with the authors of the Federalist Papers that the language explicitly forbids Congress from establishing a state religion, such as the Church of England, or Islam, or Shintoism, or the Church of the United States. Nor can Congress ban a religion.
Somehow this plain statement got transformed into “the separation of church and state” by various court decisions, some wise, some not. Under this doctrine, courts have banned school prayer and nativity scenes. Various politicians anxious to get re-elected have gone a great deal further and banned Christmas trees, wreathes, decorations, and so on, all in the name of political correctness. People urge Congress to abandon the morning prayer. They want “In God We Trust” taken off the U.S. currency. They want “under God” taken out of the pledge of allegiance. None of this is required by the language of the constitution, and on this Christmas Eve, it might be well to reflect on this fact.
Also not required by the language of the First Amendment is the tax exemption on church funds and real property which has somehow become traditional at every level of government in the United States, no doubt because generations of politicians wished to curry favor with and get votes from various church groups. Repeal of this exemption would probably balance the budgets of a great many local and state governments.
Note also, the First Amendment’s prohibition is directed at Congress, not state or local governments. If a state constitution did not prohibit it, one suspects that a state could indeed establish a state religion and fund it from tax coffers, as several did when the constitution was adopted. Imagine the Church of California, with Governor Moonbeam as High Priest. Or, in Nevada, The Church of the Seven Virgins. Or in Utah, the Church of the Latter-Day Saints. The Supreme Court put a stop to all this with Everson v. Board of Education (1947) which extended the prohibition to the states.
The court, in subsequent cases, did indeed began to interpret the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the constitution in such a manner as to lead to the present day doctrine of “separation of church and state.” It was Justice David Souter, writing for the majority in Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District b. Grumet (1994) who said, “government should not prefer one religion to another, or religion to irreligion.”
The truth of the matter is that western democracy, political philosophy and our ideas of justice are indeed derived from, or founded upon, Christian precepts. People who deny this basic fact are ignorant, or fools, or anti-religionists, or all three. Sorry Justice Souter, but our entire American civilization is founded on the principles you refuse to prefer, one over another.
Merry Christmas to you, and the joys of the season.