[bill]A picture of Moses parting the red sea hangs on the wall of the U.S. Supreme Court. Every day, children in some school districts pledge allegiance to our country under God. Every monetary bill we touch declares that our trust rests in God, and a former president was impeached after publicly disobeying Christian commandments. Yet the word “God,” or any reference to a deity, never appears in the U.S. Constitution.
So when we place our left hand on the Bible and swear to \”tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help us God,\” are we dismissing these efforts and crossing the line? Does a separation of church and state really exist?
“There is a line between church and state but it is between the institutional religious bodies and the state,” associate professor of religious studies Amy DeRogatis said. “The founders believed that the state couldn’t survive without moral citizens, they just didn’t think it was the job of the government to provide moral education – they thought it was the job of individuals.\”
The words of our Founding Fathers have been approached and adapted differently over time, causing its original intent to be skewed and often misunderstood. “Religious bodies don’t have the right to create laws or legislation, the state doesn’t have a right to choose clergy…or dictate which religious traditions should be adhered to,” DeRogatis said. \”Different religious groups cannot receive state funding, but they also have freedom from tax. It’s about institutions, not about individual practice.”
Mark Inglot, a priest at St. John’s Student Parish, said there has been a \”clear understanding that since the beginning of this country we will have no established official religion, and that we will allow people the freedom. That’s what our ancestors were about – the freedom to practice or not practice religion.”
As citizens of the U.S., we are all familiar with the story of England’s failed attempt to unify the church and state – after all, that’s what brought us to new soil. In 1534, Henry VIII broke from the Roman Catholic Church and announced himself the head of the Church of England, in addition to reigning monarch. After he demanded that every individual become a member of the Church of England, a group that we know as the Pilgrims hopped a boat to “the New World” in hopes of creating a new nation free from religious persecution. The U.S. was thus born based on the idea of religious freedom and a clear line between church and state.
Still, have the intentions of our founders become diluted over time? DeRogatis said she doesn’t think so. “You aren’t asked to pay taxes to the Episcopal church because you’re a citizen,” she said.
“We have Hindus and Muslims and Buddhists and a whole variety of religious traditions,” Inglot said. \”If we really want to follow the constitution and follow the dreams of our ancestors, we have to accommodate all of those religions.”
Criminal justice junior Brent Scott isn’t quite sure how the line steadies itself. “You still see [the line between church and state] in the news all the time, even recently, in the Supreme Court,” he said, referring to the Ten Commandments being placed on courthouse lawns.
The recent midterm election has added another element to the discussion as Democrats take control of Congress next year. Republicans have often been associated with conservative religious ideology, and to some, the power switch may mean that the majority of citizens are beginning to tire of faith-infused legislation. “[The Democrats took over] Congress mostly because of the war in Iraq and people aren’t happy with the progress,\” international relations sophomore Megan Ignash said. \”But I also think that some people are concerned with the Evangelical Christians and their conservative political views, and that’s starting to play a bigger role within our country.” Although this concept plays a part in the deciding minds of voters, it is certainly not the only issue at hand – especially because it has been around as long as the country has.
“In some ways, the line still exists, but it\’s also full of breaches,” English senior Laura McIntosh said. “If there was no bleed…there would be no issue about letting homosexuals be married in the eyes of the law.” McIntosh defines herself as an atheist, and, like most, wants the line to be bolder and more rigid. “Weakness [like this] allows for religion to creep into government, where it does not belong.”
[bld] The Supreme Court attempted to make the line between the government and religious groups more obvious in 1971 with their decision on Lemon v. Kurtzman. The Establishment Clause (\”Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion\”) was sustained and the “Lemon test” was created to keep religion and legislation separate. Created by Chief Justice Warren Burger, the test guidelines read: “First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; finally, the statute must not foster ‘an excessive government entanglement with religion.’” Still, the test is not foolproof and its objectivity has been called to question when deciding when establishments have crossed the line.
Courthouses in Texas and Kentucky, among many other states, were met with controversy when they put monuments including the Ten Commandments on their lawns. Although the Ten Commandments are sacred texts for Christians and Jews, they outline more than just a moral code. Society demands that citizens follow these “rules” as well, regardless of religion. “I think the ones that are already there should stay, but I think that if somebody wants to put up the eight principles of Buddhism, there’s nothing wrong with that, either,” Inglot said. “Leave the Ten Commandments up and put up some of the other religious traditions, and their ideals, goals and prayers. That would be a beautiful thing.”
Regardless, one cannot deny the presence of religious ideology in certain legal cases and issues. “I think there are some moral, ethical things, especially in bioethics nowadays,” Inglot said. “Just because you can do it, does that mean you should?” The questions of abortion, stem cell research, the death penalty and even the issue of immigration all come down to moral standards – which actually have their foundations in religious texts and institutions. Some of the major groups that protest the above issues are religious-based, such as the National Pro-life Religious Council.
Such a fine line raises arguable questions and, at times, double standards in decision-making. A popular point to debate is whether or not prayer should be allowed in schools. “That’s not so much about the separation between the church and state, it’s more about the free exercise of religious beliefs in an institution. If a state institution, like a public school, is sponsoring a religious belief, that’s not constitutional,” DeRogatis said.
Inglot wants to see education evolve with the country. “I would like to see…a mandatory moment of silence to pray at the beginning of every school day in your own way, [as well as] mandatory world religion classes, because you always fear what you don’t understand,” he said. The right to have the freedom to choose and practice individual beliefs is one of the reasons our country was founded in the first place, and the framers of the Constitution were very careful to preserve that belief.
It is not unusual for people to misunderstand the relationship between the government and religious institutions, and the misconceptions come from the birth of our country. “Although some people think of the country as being under the grace of God, the Constitution is not really saying that the republic is here because of God – it is here because of humans. It is humans’ authority to keep the government going,” DeRogatis said.
In actuality, the government and religious groups try to work hand in hand, and certainly don’t ignore the other’s existence. “The government can call the religious communities into accountability and responsibility,” Inglot said. “But churches, synagogues and mosques can call the government into responsibility and accountability [too], and that’s a system of checks and balances. That’s something our ancestors set up.”
[cross]The framers didn’t want the country to be completely devoid of organized religion, rather, they didn’t want the major religious institution governing all of the people. “It’s not a secular country. It’s a country that doesn’t have an established religion. And with that are rights and responsibilities.” DeRogatis said.
As long as God is on our lips (“…One nation, under God…”), in our hands (“In God We Trust”) or on our courthouse lawns (\”Thou Shall Not..\”), the debate surrounding the separation of church and state is sure to remain.

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