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Separation Of Church And State?

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:

From Pennlive.com:

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.”

From Phillyburbs.com:

“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?

10 comments to Separation Of Church And State?

  • mrwilson41

    I don’t believe so in either case. The mayor is allowed to express their religious views and was not encouraging others to do the same, unlike the National Day of Prayer.

    It may have been in indirect recommendation, but then how many degrees from being indirect do you take it. For example, is it wrong to like Pictionary, because the show was once hosted by Alan Thicke, who co-starred with Kirk Cameron on Growing Pains, who is proponent of teaching creationism in our classroom?

  • Horse

    It doesn’t seem like a violation of the 1st Amendment, however it is a violation of common sense and intelligence.

    In a financial crisis, the elected leader is spending time supplicating imaginary beings instead of actually gathering the thoughts of real individuals who could solve the problem.

  • This Mayor’s actions are stupid, but I don’t see how they come anywhere near violating the Constitution. The Mayor is not using her office to impose her religion on anyone, she is using her religion to “help” her do her job, which is a good reason to not vote for her, but there is no reason to bring the Constitution into this.

  • petrucio

    I think the First Amendment itself is what guarantees her the right to ‘the free exercise thereof’ or her wacky ideas, whoever inappropriate they might seem here.

  • vdewan

    I think they key fact here is that the ceremony was “organized by local religious leaders.” The fact that the Mayor participated in the event does not make it unconstitutional. However, had this been a state sponsored event there would be a very strong argument that it would be unconstitutional.

  • Nigel

    I work in and grew up and currently live near Harrisburg. The current Mayor is an embarrassment on many levels, but I don’t think she’s violating the constitutional religious protections. She’s an unfortunate public servant. A few months ago people protesting her were treated to her shaking head at them and then hold her hand up in prayer for them. Weird.

  • shig23

    I don’t see how this is even a question. An elected official’s practice of religion is different from direct religious involvement in government, and the dividing line has been fairly well established over the years. Or is this a game of Constitutional Law or Fiction?

  • KeithJM

    I’m OK with a mayor practicing religion. To say she can’t practice religion would be applying a religious test in order to let someone take office, which is clearly prohibited by the constitution. Once she’s practicing religion, she can talk about it publicly if she wishes. She just can’t use the government to force anyone else to participate.

    Also, in the sentence “Jefferson’s description of the law has been sighted several times by courts” should use cited (short for citation) instead of sighted.

  • I think it’s important to remember the context under which the Establishment Clause was written. The American colonies had just gained independence from an extremely corrupt government that was married to the church on one hand and a giant monopoly corporation on the other. The founders realized, quite wisely, that government, religion, and industry should not be hand-in-hand.

    I don’t think the deists who wrote the Constitution and Bill of Rights intended it to mean that government and religion should never cross paths or acknowledge each others’ existence. Just that they shouldn’t get too cozy.

  • If I may be a little pedantic, it’s not strictly true that Jefferson coined the phrase “separation of church and state.” He was likely reflecting on something that Roger Williams (Baptist preacher, founder of Rhode Island, & advocate for religious tolerance) had said a century and a half earlier: “[W]hen they have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the world, God hath ever broke down the wall itself, removed the Candlestick, and made his Garden a Wilderness, as at this day.” (“Mr. Cottons Letter Lately Printed, Examined and Answered.”) Williams used similar “wall” and “hedge” language in his tract The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience. Given how well-read he was, It’s hard to conceive that Jefferson penned this phrase in his letter to the Danbury Baptists without the trigger of Williams’s own writings.

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