A little over a week ago, the Supreme Court handed down another decision in a long line of cases seeking to erase the ideal “separation of church and state.” Specifically, the court ruled that prayer (even sectarian prayer) can be spoken before town meetings, leaving Justice Kagan to condemn the majority’s decision for, “[leaving] some residents to the unenviable choice of either pretending to pray like the majority or declining to join its communal activity, at the very moment of petitioning their elected leaders.”
Justice Kagan sums up the problem perfectly by pointing out the clear first amendment issues at stake. The establishment clause of the first amendment is meant to protect the people from their government, creating a national religion or otherwise interfering with the individual right to pursue religion. By allowing Christian prayers before town hall meetings, the court has allowed local governments to essentially sponsor a religion, a notion that would have deeply perturbed the founders of this nation.
While many will argue that we are a Christian nation whose founders were very much okay with open prayers before government meetings, The truth is that some of our most notable founders feared the mixture of church and state, which is made evident in the establishment clause of the first amendment. However, some might be surprised to learn that the phrase, “separation of church and state” was derived from an open letter penned by Thomas Jefferson in which he spoke of the necessary “wall of separation between church and state.”
In modern times, it is easy to question that the separation of church and state actually exists, let alone that a “wall” exists between the two. By reading the first amendment and Jefferson’s writings we see that the interpretation of religious freedom varies quite a bit from what is seen on TV today. Religion was seen as a personal and private matter at the time of the founding, one that anyone was free to practice without fear of government endorsement of an alternate practice — as seen in the Anglican Church in England — or threat to an individual’s right to worship.
Many “signs” of our Christian heritage have actually been added in the modern era, clearly not stemming from the founding interpretation of the first amendment. For instance, the phrase “under God” was not made a part of the Pledge of Allegiance until 1954. We see a similar trend in our currency: U.S. coins bore the phrase “In God We Trust” as early as 1861, a trait paper bills adopted in 1957. While these traditions are long-standing, they originated well after the death of our last founding father. Our sense of the Christian Nation is relatively new, given that religion among the founders was very mixed.
From healthcare to gay marriage, we have seen “the right” claim first amendment violations of their freedom of religion. Yet, it is the non-Christians that must endure increasing instances of governments (local and national) endorsing the Christian faith over others.
Everyone is entitled to their own opinions and their own practice, as that choice is a deeply personal and important one; but it is impossible not to feel the Christian influence stemming from the government in modern times.
If we are to truly allow freedom of religion, we must also respect the notion of freedom from religion, that is the freedom to not be pushed toward any one set of beliefs. It is my hope that the Supreme Court will start taking a stronger stance on establishment cases and that the true “wall of separation” will be given a chance to stand.