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Separating Church and State for Both Their Sakes


It seems so simple:

Congress shall make no law respecting
an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;
or abridging the freedom of speech, or the press;
or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The first amendment puts the free exercise of religion right next to the freedom of speech and the press, and both of these next to the freedom to participate in the political realm shared by all. For over two centuries, society in general and the courts in particular have struggled with how to hold these three in tension. We've seen it here in our own discussions, like the one at my post last week or Pach's on Wednesday (It's Bill Clinton's Fault). We all want our own beliefs respected, and part of that respect is the freedom to express them in public.

One big aspect of the whole "separation of church and state" discussion is generational. In the early 1960s, the Supreme Court made two major rulings that causes the TheoCons to scream for the heads of the Court. In 1962, the Court ruled in Engel v. Vitale (370 US 421) that the “Regent’s Prayer” used in the public schools of the state of New York was unconstitutional. This prayer said “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our Country.” (Students forced to pray for teachers: was this what Jesus had in mind when he said “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you”?) The next year, the Court ruled in School District of Abingdon Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp (374 US 203) that the practice of a daily Bible reading led by the teacher followed by a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer by the class is similarly unconstitutional.

Maybe it's because I never went to school in NY prior to 1962, but I like letting schools be schools, churches be churches, mosques be mosques, holy groves of trees be holy groves of trees, and so forth. But for some of a certain age who DID attend such schools, the loss of these prayers and practices felt like having a part of their school heritage cut out. The TheoCon leaders tapped into this pain, turned it into anger, and have used it ever since to fuel a "return to God" movement against the Court and all who agree with these rulings.

In some situations, it seems they are prevailing. Some of the more recent cases have cut into this protection of the religious rights of those in the political minority. In Employment Division of the State of Oregon v. Smith in 1990 (494 US 872), Justice Scalia wrote for a 5-4 majority that the state was within the law when it fired a Native American drug rehabilitation worker for using peyote as part of a Native American religious ritual. The most disturbing part of Scalia's opinion was this, because he accurately assessed the import of his ruling: "It may fairly be said that leaving accommodation to the political process will place at a relative disadvantage those religious practices that are not widely engaged in; but that unavoidable consequence of democratic government must be preferred to a system in which each conscience is a law unto itself or in which judges weigh the social importance of all laws against the centrality of all religious beliefs." (p. 891)

In other words, Scalia says that those who practice minority religions or those with practices rooted in opposition to prevailing religious beliefs only have such rights as the majority deigns to give them politically. This worries me greatly, because I break the laws of California (and at least 22 other states) every Sunday by providing alcohol to minors, some only just old enough to walk. It is part of a Sunday morning conspiracy of lawbreaking that goes by various names, including Holy Communion, the Eucharist, and the Lord's Supper. According to a compilation of state liquor laws as found in the Alcohol Policy Information System, run by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (part of the NIH), at least 23 states provide no exception in the law for alcohol used in religious ceremonies. The only thing keeping me and my co-conspirators out of jail is the willingness of the various district attorneys and police departments to look the other way. (It's just a sip, officer. . . ) That's not very comforting.

Beyond the protection of beliefs of those in the political minority, however, a stronger argument can be made for the church – any church – to support the separation of church and state. It has nothing to do with court rulings, but instead it has to do with the question of "who speaks for the church?"

There are websites in my bookmarks file that I check out every day, like FDL. Others I use when I'm interested in a particular subject, like cooking or music or the World Cup or specific cities. Among these "others" in my bookmark folder is AngryBlackBitch, who snarks with the best of them on race, politics, gender issues, St. Louis, the media, and more. I don't know if ABB reads FDL, but she had a rant last April that came to mind when I sat down to write this post.

You see, she links Plamegate with the separation of church and state, and she does it with style. . . .

Okay, so Scooter Libby says that Cheney told him to leak classified information to refute Ambassador Wilson's claim that the administration was on crack regarding all things nuclear and Iraqi. Libby's testimony goes on the state that Cheney said that Bush told him to tell Libby to go forth and spin…under the table…like a thief in the night…and off the record like a secret track on an old school funk album…which makes the current assertion that the President wasn't technically leaking information seem like the bullshit on ice that it is.

[snip – great snark linking Plame scandal with Watergate era court cases]

Does this scandal [Plame] reek to high heaven; does this behavior shine a harsh light on the hypocritical righteousness within the administration, should this investigation continue? Hell yes.

One more point…a bitch has been pondering the problem of linking religion and politics. Follow me for a second on this one. See, a bitch strongly supports the separation of church and state because it protects both church and state. This relates to the current scandal based administration. Bush has wrapped himself in the cloak of Evangelical Christianity. He ran for office twice on a platform of Christ guiding his policy. Check that knee before it jerks…a bitch thought that was bullshit too. However, we are now a global community, many people are being introduced to Christianity through this overtly faith branded administration and this bitch happens to think that the current administration is giving Christianity a bad name. Which is the ever loving point behind the separation of church and state.

Damn, that girl can snark!  

It's one thing to have to clean up my own sins and (as a pastor) the sins of my church. My mess, my problem. But having the sins of the White House attributed to me and my beliefs is more than I want to deal with. (It's bad enough that I have to take them as an American, but as a Christian? No thanks!) The Angry Black Bitch is right: the church – each and every one of them – needs the separation of church and state, if only to protect themselves from being abused like this.

Think about it: who do you want speaking for your beliefs and your church (or whatever your collection of like-minded folks might be called)? 

(Note: if you read more at ABB, be aware that she refers to Bush as "Scooter B," who is not to be confused with our dear friend Irving.)

(I found this cartoon at a now defunct athiest website, and it was just too perfect for the discussion today.  Peterr — via the magic of Google — was able to find the original artist, and I want to give him some link love for such a great piece of artwork.  Thank you, Matt Wuerker!  Please browse through his site — some truly fantastic pieces there.  –CHS)

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I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

And Preview is my friend.