By John Delle Donne
The separation of church and state is one of the core values instilled in the American Constitution. It was placed there to ensure that the tyranny of religious persecution never rear its ugly head on our shores. After all, many fled to the new world in search of religious freedom, seeking a paradise of tolerance where they were free to worship as they saw fit. But still, to this day, there are loud voices on Capitol Hill calling for there to be prayer in schools, or for our country to be governed on Christian values. It is my belief that this line of thinking is a direct slap in the face of Thomas Jefferson himself, and has no place in our modern government.
The term “separation of church and state” never actually appears in the Constitution, rather its paraphrased from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson in 1802 to the Danbury Baptist Coalition in Connecticut.
“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.”
(Proof that Donald Trump was not the first US President to advocate the building of a “wall!”)
Jefferson was speaking in defense of the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, which grants freedom of religion to all Americans. The boundary of Jefferson’s proposed separation remains in dispute to this day. But throughout our history, common sense has prevailed, limiting the power of religious institutions as it pertains to our government. In the landmark 1947 US Supreme Court Case Everson v. Board of Education, the Establishment Clause was expanded to limit the ability of state governments to grant legislative or effective privileges to religious denominations. This was a fine step in the right direction, but the religious right continues to press the issue 70 years later.
If we are truly a “melting pot” of cultures and ideals, how can we in good conscience allow prayers of one faith to be present in public schools. Why should the teachings of Jesus Christ be used as justification for laws that govern those who do not believe in his existence? If we are truly a nation with no official religion, as the Constitution states, then how can we impose the values of Christianity on a public made up of varying beliefs?
This sentiment was echoed by President Barack Obama in an email to CBN News. Obama said:
“Whatever we once were, we’re no longer just a Christian nation. We are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation and a nation of non-believers.”
I may not agree with everything President Obama has ever said, but I think he summed up the spirit of the Establishment Clause perfectly with that statement.
Jefferson understood this in the early 19th century. You can find reference to this principle as far back as 1644, more than a century before the birth of our nation. Back then, Roger Williams, the founder of the first Baptist church in America wrote about “a hedge or wall of separation between the garden of church and the wilderness of the world.” This quote served as a guiding principle to Jefferson and continues to inspire those who seek to rid their government of religious influence today.
With everything we know in 2017, all of our scientific advancements and exploratory observations of a vast unknowable universe, mixed with our collective desire as a nation to be inclusive of all, how is this still up for debate?
I personally hope for a time in which religious opinion does not influence governing bodies. I hope for a day in which Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Wiccans, Buddhists and Atheists no longer have to be slave to the teachings of a religion they do not follow.
In 2017, “because Jesus said so” is not a viable argument.