Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Church & State

My Intro to Islam professor asked the class today whether or not they felt it was appropriate to teach about the various religions in school. While I consider the subject a bit more appropriate for college age students where they are old enough to make up their own mind, I am not entirely against the idea for high school or possibly younger if it was an elective.

But I mentioned that our church/state separation would prohibit teaching religion to students by government employees generally speaking.

And immediately a guy in the back let loose about how church/state separation wasn't in the Constitution and he disparaged the roots of the idea as a mere mention of Thomas Jefferson in some irrelevant letter.

"Strongly guarded . . . is the separation between religion and government in the Constitution of the United States."
Of course this quote isn't Jefferson, it's Madison. Considered by some as the father of the Constitution and principle drafter of the Bill of Rights, including the 1st Amendment that restricts the government from establishing a religion nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof:
Amendment I: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Many political groups will scream, "Look, look! Nothing about separation!" But does it describe a separation? A separation by any other name...

Some people believe that the restriction merely prevents Congress from recognizing an official religion of the United States. But of course the provision doesn't narrow the restriction to this alone. It comes down to that pesky word "respect." Which is defined as:
respect
1 a : to consider worthy of high regard : ESTEEM b : to refrain from interfering with [please respect their privacy]
2 : to have reference to : CONCERN
Strangely enough it seems like the drafter of this line could have meant that the government was prohibited from both making an official religion but also from that they could make no law having reference to an establishment of religion. It's almost as if they don't want the government to have any say on religious matters. If they merely wanted to prevent government recognition of religion, why not use that term instead of one that goes so much further? It's not like they drafted this without much thought involved. It's obvious the drafter wanted to create a separation not just avoid recognition. In fact the drafter in question described it to that end in the earlier quote and others as a "total separation of the church from the state."

Can we honestly deny this interpretation of the 1st Amendment? Can we throw out this separation because the Amendment describes a separation but doesn't specifically use the word separate? I don't think we can. Especially considering that it is the drafters own interpretation.

Is it accurate to call it a total separation? I don't believe so, at least not in all respects. The amendment also says the government cannot prohibit the free exercise thereof. It does not make exceptions for government employees. It doesn't prohibit the government from writing laws that may have religious similarities such as "Thou shalt not Murder" as a secular law. Obviously there isn't a total or wall of separation. Its a way of describing that there is a separation, but with totality in only some specific regards.

But I believe in this case the parents right to teach their child about their religion takes primacy over any compelling state interest to have government employees try to depict those religions from a secular viewpoint and attempting to fairly depict what various religions believe... a contradiction in the making.

UPDATE 4:15pm

Noticed a major error on my part in the definition. Corrected and adjusted the argument accordingly.

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