Let’s begin by clarifying what the first amendment of the United States Constitution says about religion, church and state: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting free exercise thereof…” That is it. That is what the United States Constitution says that was the origin of the concept of “separation of church and state.”
One need not be a constitutional attorney to see that the Constitution did not use the language “separation of church and state,” nor did it appear to be protecting the government from a church or from religion. In fact, the opposite was the case. The founders and the framers of the Constitution were attempting to protect the church and religion from the government. They wanted protection from the kind of religious persecution that had been experienced in Europe. This was a right that Americans relished enough to actually make it a fundamental right of citizenship.
The Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791. It was not until 1802 that Thomas Jefferson used the language “wall of separation between church and state” in a letter to a group of Baptist clergy in Danbury, Connecticut. Jefferson was a devout man but one who, as president, discontinued the practices of his two predecessors, George Washington and John Adams, of issuing proclamations calling for days of fasting and thanksgiving.
In his letter to the Danbury Baptist Association he was affirming his belief in and support for the first amendment when he used that phrase. This language has become so common that many refer to it as the actual language of the Constitution itself. And it appears that much of the controversy and litigation involving first amendment religious rights is based upon an assumption that “separation” – rather than “establishment” and “prohibiting”- is the Constitutional standard.
This perspective, however, does not negate the importance of the controversy surrounding the cross in the Mojave National Preserve that is now being considered by the Supreme Court. Opponents of the cross argue that such a symbol in a national preserve that had been a national cemetery violates the constitution. The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) placed this cross there in 1934 when the land was federally owned as a memorial to soldiers who had made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. The problem seems to have arisen when a request to place a symbol of another religious tradition in the same park for the same reason was denied by the National Park Service.
Instead of Congress requiring the park to accept other religious symbols also, thereby relieving the administrators of the accusation of showing preference for a Christian symbol, what Congress decided to do was a land swap with the VFW, making the section of land that contained the cross private land. Technically, the move may have been brilliant and legal. Practically, it was just plain stupid and shortsighted. It was not necessarily the cross that violated the Constitution. It was that the cross was the only symbol allowed that was unconstitutional.
The first amendment should be the foundation for our growth as a religiously diverse nation. Just as we have been able to overcome much of our racial narrow-mindedness, the Constitution actually challenges us to overcome our religious ignorance. In a religiously pluralistic society, we do not want the government to endorse our individual brand or doctrine. Let the best idea win and leave the government out of religion.