This past Friday, The Mayor of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, finished participating in a three-day prayer and fasting ceremony which was organized by local religious leaders. Mayor Linda Thompson was quite candid in her remarks:
In a statement this week, she said: “I am honored and pleased with the diverse participation of our religious leaders in support of our city. I am open about my faith and will be participating in the voluntary prayer and fast.”
“Things that are above and beyond my control; I need God,” Mayor Thompson told CNBC in a remarkably candid interview about her faith. “I depend on him for guidance. Spiritual guidance. That’s why it’s really no struggle for me to join this fast and prayer.”
Here is the local TV report featuring Mayor Thompson’s comments.
So here is a question the people of Harrisburg (and elsewhere) should be asking: Are the mayor’s actions in violation of The First Amendment of the US Constitution?
Just to quickly review, the first sentence of the First Amendment of The Bill of Rights begins:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …
In 1802, Thomas Jefferson described this part of the constitution (which he had tremendous influence over) as “a wall of separation between Church and State”. This is the origin of the famous phrase that has been, and continues to be, used regularly by people when trying to describe the beginning of The First Amendment to others, or comprehending The First Amendment for themselves. Jefferson truly believed in his description and interpretation of this universal law of all people, everywhere. And let’s face it, the concept of the Separation of Church and State (SoCaS) is one of the damn finest ideas that has ever been conceived in the history of human thought.
Back to the question: Are the mayor’s actions in violation of The First Amendment of the US Constitution?
Here is my answer: it depends on whom you ask.
Jefferson’s description of the law has been sighted several times by courts, made possible by the precedent set by Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black in the famous (or infamous) Everson v Board of Education case of 1947. That a supreme court justice sighted SoCaS in this majority ruling opened the door and made SoCaS legal fair game.
By contrast, Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote as part of the dissenting opinion in the Wallace v Jaffree case of 1985:
“There is simply no historical foundation for the proposition that the Framers intended to build the “wall of separation” that was constitutionalized in Everson …”
There are about as many opinions in support of the legality of SoCaS as there are against SoCaS, and the opinions are not limited to Supreme Court justices (even though they are the ones that count the most in our society’s system.) People everywhere have an opinion to express on the matter. Ask anyone their thoughts on SoCaS and you’ll find about as many different answers as there are people answering the question. (“Opinions are like assholes …” to quote the famous movie line.)
It’s at times like this that I have to remind myself that The Constitutional Convention of 1787 was an exercise in compromises. I also remind myself that my country’s other seminal document, The Declaration of Independence (authored by Thomas Jefferson in 1776) was also an exercise in compromises. When ideas are subject to the spirit, atmosphere, and (sometimes) necessity of compromise (in quest of something greater than any single individual ideology) the results is something less than perfect, yet better than absence. Nonetheless, these imperfect laws ARE the laws of the land – “the rules of the game” as I’m fond of saying. But in a weird yet ironic way, it seems to me almost wholly appropriate that the very first portion of our First Amendment in our Bill of Rights has become somewhat ambiguous, and worthy of interpretation and disagreements. As it stands today, those fond of the Jeffersonian interpretation are in the proverbial ”drivers seat” because the Supreme Court has made it so by fiat. For those fond of the strict interpretation of the written words, they have the actual letter of the law at their advantage, yet they are hugely impeded by the recently “constitutionalized” SoCaS.
So what do you think? Are the mayor’s actions violating The First Amendment?