We should find it both interesting and anomalous that a myriad of city and county governments, most state legislatures, the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, and the U.S. Supreme Court all open their sessions with prayer; yet that same prayer is not allowed in our public schools.
Perhaps it boils down to prepositions. As we learned in grade school, a preposition is a word governing, and usually preceding, a noun or pronoun, and expressing a relation to another word or element in the clause, as in, “The highlight of the show is at the end” or “She took the package from the counter.”
When discussing prepositions, the words “of” and “from” offer an interesting juxtaposition. The word “of” indicates possession whereas the use of the word “from” denotes distance, a critically important difference when examining the phrase in the First Amendment, i.e., “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…”
When we look at the Founding, we do so thru the prism of modern-day society. For example, in 1776, the words “virtue” and “values” were almost unknown to the Founders in the sense of how we use those words today. In 18thcentury colonial America, virtue was less akin to someone’s morals than it had to do with doing one’s public duty; and instead of values the Founders were more apt to use the term principles.
Rejecting the low standard of mere “toleration” that existed elsewhere, the Founders enshrined liberty of conscience as a matter of right. It is immoral, they held, for any government to coerce religious belief. Yet they also argued that it is advisable for governments to recognize their reliance upon “Divine Providence,” and to support and encourage religion.
With the notable exception of a ban on religious tests as a requirement for federal office the Constitution of 1787 said little about religion. When George Washington was elected president, the Bill of Rights had not yet been adopted. Despite this, in his response to a congratulatory note sent to him by a group of Jewish Americans, Washington characterized religious liberty not as a gift of government or a matter of toleration, but as a natural right possessed by every human being.
Although the words “separation of church and state” do not appear in the First Amendment, the establishment clause was intended to separate church from state. And in the 20th century, the U.S. Supreme Court applied the establishment clause to the states through the 14th Amendment and today the establishment clause prohibits all levels of government from either advancing or inhibiting religion.
Not surprisingly, our nation’s Founders disagreed about the exact meaning of “no establishment” under the First Amendment; and the argument continues to this day. However, the Framers did agree that “no establishment” meant no national church and no government involvement in religion.
Jefferson and Madison believed that without separating church from state, there could be no real religious freedom. In essence, the establishment clause separates church from state, but not religion from politics or public life, an important distinction.
In 1802, Thomas Jefferson, wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, advising, “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 and State.”
The Supreme Court has cited Jefferson’s letter in key cases referring to a direct link between Jefferson’s “wall of separation” concept and the First Amendment’s establishment clause.
But in doing so many believe Jefferson’s words were taken out context, bringing us full circle back to the two prepositions cited at the top of this commentary, because contrary to what many would have us believe, freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion.
Quote of the day: “Good judgment comes from experience and a lot of that comes from bad judgment”—Famer’s Almanac