Building A Wall of Separation (Faith & School)

The U.S. Constitution was written as a replacement for the Articles of Confederation – our first effort at writing a broad set of laws by which to govern the nation. The Articles had guaranteed the States almost complete sovereignty and absolute independence from one another – a great idea in theory, but not as workable as one might hope in practice. 

It was understandable they’d err on the side of freedom, having finally won an extended and bitter war with the Motherland over a King they’d claimed was a “Tyrant.” There were over two dozen specific examples of his excessive rule-making and liberty-crushing behavior included in the break-up letter penned by the Colonies – a missive better known as the “Declaration of Independence.” 

So, you know… downer. 

But they had, perhaps, swung a bit too far away from structure and security. The Constitution was an effort to rectify the resulting difficulties. Turns out that sometimes, thoughtful limits actually grease the wheels of liberty and justice for all.

When the U.S. Constitution was finally ready for public review and debate in the late 1780’s, there were many who thought we’d once again overcompensated – this time back towards too much government, and too little freedom. They wanted some sort of written guarantee they wouldn’t be oppressed by this bigger, stronger government. 

The authors were appalled at this concern. Obviously any powers not specifically granted to the national government by this document remained with the States and the People thereof! To spell out those protections would be… redundant! Possibly even limiting! What if listing some specifically guaranteed rights implied that they were the only ones entirely secured?!

It almost got ugly. 

Nevertheless, a compromise was reached. The Constitution was ratified, and a collection of ten clarifying Amendments almost immediately passed as a package deal. Thus, the “Bill of Rights.”

Despite the numbering system, there are far more than ten rights included. Some Amendments, like the Fourth and Fifth, are packed with guarantees and thick verbiage. Others, like the Eighth, are fairly crisp and to the point – although written in such a way as to allow at least 225 years of subsequent debate as to exactly what they mean.

The Third is all but irrelevant. The Seventh, strangely technical. The Second – well, the Second was badly written from the moment it was passed. Forget whatever it may or may not intend to say about the right to bear arms, Madison’s English teacher must have had a fit

But the best-known is probably the First.

The First Amendment contains six specific protections, somewhat related, and presumably so very important that they all tied for first when the Framers were debating what to guarantee the mostiest mostest. 

Let’s take a gander, shall we?

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.

That’s a meaty one, to be sure. What many people don’t realize is that this version was abbreviated from James Madison’s original text. Here’s what Madison proposed as Amendment Prime:

The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext, infringed. The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments; and the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable. The people shall not be restrained from peaceably assembling and consulting for their common good; nor from applying to the Legislature by petitions, or remonstrances, for redress of their grievances.

So there’s a lesson in tightening up your language without losing substance, kids. 

In any case, these are the biggies that squeezed in ahead of militias and quartering of soldiers, and even beat out due process in order of presentation. The right to protest. The right to associate with whomever you wish, including but certainly not limited to political organizations of any and all stripes. Freedom of the press and of speech – absolute linchpins to any nation hoping to maintain the slightest credibility as a true democracy. 

But coming ahead of all of them – earning the first two slots in all of Amendment-dom – are the twin ‘freedom of religion’ clauses. 

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…

In the most basic terms, this is the part that says the government may not do anything to promote or encourage a particular religion or the concept of religion in general. Doing so creates a double curse. It leads to the marginalization and eventual persecution of those with different beliefs (whether that difference is major or minor), AND it soils the very faith the government is promoting by making it a tool of secular authority, regulated by political maneuvering and flawed men rather than one’s own spiritual journey. A faith mandated by the guys with guns and the keys to the jail is, of course, no faith at all. 

Or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

This is the part which says that the government may not do anything to discourage, limit, or punish a particular religion or the concept of religion in general. Hopefully the problems with that sort of behavior are self-evident. 

'Spanish Inquisition' Compilation - Monty Python's Flying Circus

You may wonder where the famous ‘wall of separation between church and state’ comes in. As with so many things, we have Jefferson to either thank or blame for that phrase, depending on your point of view. Well, him and the Baptists.

In 1801, while Jefferson was President, he received a letter from the Danbury Baptists – yes, those Baptists. As in the folks with over 3x the membership of the next leading denomination in Oklahoma today. They had some concerns about religious freedom and what they saw as inadequate delineation between the secular and the spiritual:

Our sentiments are uniformly on the side of religious liberty: that Religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals, that no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious opinions, {and} that the legitimate power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor. 

That’s right, kids – the Baptists were asserting that faith is between you and God while the government is simply supposed to keep you from killing one another or taking someone else’s stuff. That’s it – no getting involved in issues best left to the pulpit or the prayer closet.  

But sir, our constitution of government is not specific… And such has been our laws and usages, and such still are, {so} that Religion is considered as the first object of Legislation, and therefore what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the State) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights. And these favors we receive at the expense of such degrading acknowledgments, as are inconsistent with the rights of freemen. 

These weren’t atheists arguing against the Ten Commandments or Muslims insisting on their right to pray to Allah instead of Jesus. These were Christians – Protestants, even – who were frustrated by their local government enabling and supporting some theological technicalities more than others. 

That’s the logical and historical result when you have a religious people and a government of-the-by-the-for-the those same people. You’ve driven down the street and wondered how and why even the smallest community needs about 37 different churches? That’s the flip-side of religious freedom – where two or more or gathered, they’ll immediately begin arguing about the finer points of hermeneutics. 

Unless government makes a substantial and ongoing effort to avoid such entanglements, those arguments naturally spill over into the secular realm.

It was Jefferson’s reply which gave expression to what has become the most common understanding of the First Amendment’s guarantees regarding matters of faith. 

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.

There it is. 

By itself, it’s just a phrase in a letter. But it’s a phrase in a letter which has been repeatedly referenced and validated in Supreme Court decisions and has become an entrenched and widely accepted interpretation of First Amendment protections through case law and sheer longevity.

In other words, it’s as close to belonging in the actual text of the Constitution as something can be without actually being in the text. For the record, it’s not alone in this – the Constitution never explains Federalism or defends Democracy, both of which are now considered inherent. The Framers despised Political Parties and what letting them get involved would do to the entire system – but for better or worse, they’re clearly a thing. 

And until the North won the Civil War, Equality wasn’t even a goal, let alone a realization. I’m a big fan of small government and faithfulness to the Constitution, but let’s not go overboard. It’s an outline, not a mathematical model. 

So “wall of separation” it is. It sounds so simple, and it is – on paper. 

In practice, though… well, let’s just say it’s come up a time or two. And sometimes, the issue involves public education. 

Which is what I do.  

Next: A Wall of Separation - Everson v. Board of Education (1947)

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My historical &legal ignorance is lessened and my natural curiosity edified. Thank you, friend, for clarifying the woolly origins of our assumed freedoms.


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