May 10 2013

Separation of Church and State

A comment on my recent post about Backdoor Creationism calls into question the premise that the US Constitution demands separation of church and state, and therefore religious beliefs cannot be taught in public schools. The comment reads:

The first amendment states that the federal government can neither (sic) or prohibit the exercise of religion. “separation of church and state” is just a propaganda term used by some to stave off religious nuts who use undue social pressures or indoctrination to push their beliefs to others.

Here’s a section of the first amendment.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

And here’s the definition of the word “respecting” from a dictionary dated 5 years after the adoption of the Bill of Rights.

RESPECT’ING, ppr. Regarding; having regard to ; relating to.

A little bit of history is in order. The term “separation of church and state” is not a propaganda term. It is a quote from Thomas Jefferson (who, I understand, had some familiarity with the Constitution) from his letter to the Danbury Baptists. He wrote:

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.

The commenter appeals to a dictionary definition in order to make their point, but this is not a valid method of argument when it comes to law. The only thing that matters is legal precedence – how have the courts interpreted the law, and in the case of the Constitution what matters most is how the Supreme Court has interpreted the law.

Over the years the Supreme Court, based on their decisions of specific cases, have established three tests to see if any specific activity violates the establishment clause of the Constitution. They are:

The Lemon Test
Based on the 1971 case of Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 612-13, the Court will rule a practice unconstitutional if:

  1. It lacks any secular purpose. That is, if the practice lacks any non-religious purpose.
  2. The practice either promotes or inhibits religion.
  3. Or the practice excessively (in the Court’s opinion) involves government with a religion.

The Coercion Test
Based on the 1992 case of Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 the religious practice is examined to see to what extent, if any, pressure is applied to force or coerce individuals to participate.

The Court has defined that “Unconstitutional coercion occurs when: (1) the government directs (2) a formal religious exercise (3) in such a way as to oblige the participation of objectors.”

The Endorsement Test
Finally, drawing from the 1989 case of Allegheny County v. ACLU, 492 U.S. 573, the practice is examined to see if it unconstitutionally endorses religion by conveying “a message that religion is ‘favored,’ ‘preferred,’ or ‘promoted’ over other beliefs.”

Teaching what is essentially a religious doctrine in publicly funded and government run schools promotes those religious beliefs, entangles government in religion, establishes those religious doctrines as favored, and coerces students to participate in a religious activity.  Webster has nothing to say on the matter. The Supreme Court has spoken.

35 responses so far