Scrudato: Religion less free than in the recent past

One of the favored rallying cries of the modern political left is the “encroachment” of religion on the state. Ironically, they are woefully uninformed on the current state of the freedom of religious expression and their political success in the matter. Xan White exhibits this ignorance in his column “Church and state, subtly split” (Jan. 26).

Indeed, one of his basic assumptions, that the barrier between church and state is “ever eroding,” is demonstrably incorrect. Despite claims of religious encroachment, freedom of religious expression is far less than what it was only 20 years ago.

Students could pray in schools as recently as 1961, until this was deemed unconstitutional in the Engel v. Vitale Supreme Court case. It was permissible to provide students with meditation time which could be used for prayer until 1985’s Wallace v. Jaffree Supreme Court decision. There are many more cases involving other aspects of government involvement with religion, but the fact is that religion, particularly Christianity, was once far more prevalent in American society.

These policies and many others were developed and implemented by elected representatives of the people, and the sudden invalidation of hundreds of years of tradition was not taken lightly. Twenty-two states officially protested the Engel v. Vitale decision, and, since these landmark decisions were passed, thousands of activists have worked tirelessly to restore the right of the people to decide for themselves their local level of religious expression. Historical precedence is in favor of the “nuts” on this one.

White can at least take solace in that state money was never used to indirectly fund parochial schools. It must have been only recently that the possibility of state funding through vouchers came up. Unfortunately that, too, is incorrect. Many states once contributed free busing or other support to parochial schools and it was this practice that started the deluge against organized religion in society with the 1941 Supreme Court case Everson v. Board of Education.

In fact, the details of the “separation of church and state” were no more than private personal opinions until they were elevated to legal canon in the Everson decision. The decision only passed by the slimmest of margins, 5-4. In essence, five men took it upon themselves to break with over 100 years of history and precedent to decide the ways in which it would be permissible to shape society in the 20th century. The phrase “the separation of church and state” cannot be found anywhere in the United States Constitution.

In fact, it cannot be found in any legal document before the 1941 court decision. The phrase, so commonly used to describe the Constitution’s intent regarding the issue, is from one of Thomas Jefferson’s private letters to the Danbury Baptists. The relevant part of the constitution, the First Amendment, reads as follows:

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

Jefferson’s opinion, while not irrelevant, should never have formed the core of the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution. Jefferson’s letter was just that: a letter. It was never introduced into any public arena where its validity could be debated. After all, the letter was used to divine the opinion of an entire nation. Jefferson himself was in France when the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were written, and, as such, his opinion should never have been used to determine the intentions of the actual authors of the Constitution.

James Madison, who wrote much of the Bill of Rights, was noticeably against organized religion, but he borrowed liberally from George Mason’s religion-friendly Virginia Bill of Rights only when he realized that the Constitution would not pass without a Bill of Rights.

Still, these are only three men out of hundreds involved in the process. Even if one were to accept personal opinions as a basis for such an interpretation, most of the founding fathers could be quoted on both sides of the issue depending on the context. If opinions are to be used, a wider selection is essential to ensure an unbiased interpretation.

I am always amazed at how often the left discounts the views of the founding fathers and the wording of the Constitution as catering to the world view of the political elite and not the common man, but on this issue no such scrutiny is applied. The Constitution was ratified by the people on the basis of what they understood it to say, and their actions followings its ratification speak far louder than the private opinions of a few of the societal elite.

As for the modern issue of the “ever eroding” barrier, you can only believe such a falsehood if you blissfully ignore historical precedent. Constitutionally speaking, banning students from praying in school (even privately and voluntarily), disbanding Bible study groups and forcing government officials to remove religious personal effects from their offices violates both the letter and the spirit of the First Amendment.

Unfortunately, the opinion of five men in 1941 instantly voided the establishment clause of the First Amendment and the will of the American people. Religion is not encroaching on the state. Rather, the state, driven by zealots such as White, is inexorably crushing the freedom of religion.

Perhaps if those who make up the left performed the slightest bit of historical research and presented an argument grounded in fact, they might realize their undeserved success with this issue and quit while they are ahead. Or is it that they know this only too well? After all, it has been said that if you repeat the same lie often enough and with great conviction it will be taken as truth.

Conservatives have every right constitutionally and morally to combat these lies where we encounter them and to ensure that five unelected men cannot decide the destiny of a nation.

John Scrudato is a sophomore in Morse College.


  • Anonymous

    The First Amendment protects my right to be non-religious as much as your right to follow a religion. Without the complete separation of church and state, one religion (in this case christianity) is favored over all others, in clear violation of the First Amendment.

  • Anonymous

    I think you have misunderstood the concerns of the ever-to-be-feared left. I lean left myself, and I think you have made some excellent points here about legal decisions that have infringed on the free exercise of religion.

    I think what "The Left" fears has not happened yet, but sees signs of it happening. For instance, the religious allegiance of many Republicans played a significant role in the election of our last two Republican presidents. Actions such as the banning of gay marriage and the push to overturn Roe v. Wade are largely motivated by the beliefs of Christians. This makes "The Left" nervous, and I think rightfully so. Just because the most prevalently practiced religion in the USA is Christian doesn't mean that the government should decide things based on a Christian ideology. And to bring things back to inaugurations, the benediction up until recently was delivered in a pluralistic way, with ministers of several different denominations and a rabbi all present. But at Bush's and Obama's inaugurations, there was only one Protestant minister present. In comparison with the traditional pluralistic inauguration, what message does this send? It's not a law establishing a religion, but it does send a powerful message about what our "national religion" seems, albeit unofficially, to be. I am one of those non-believers whom Obama reluctantly included in his inaugural address. I have no qualms about their being religious leaders present at the inauguration, seeing as spiritual and religious belief is an important part of the lives of most Americans, but I do object to the gradual reduction of inclusive, pluralistic sensibilities espoused by our political leaders. I think these are the objections shared by most of the left.

  • What?

    "Alexander said she has been commissioned to write a poem honoring the 100th anniversary of the founding of the NAACP."

    What? Not a museum? A music festival? Yale?

    All that can be ginned up for a black woman is a handout from the NAACP?

    Question: is this evidence of oppression (suppression of talent) or affirmative action (elevation of mediocrity)?

  • AA

    We should not forget when looking at tradition and historical precedence that a great many of the people who contributed to the founding of this nation were religious minorities in England who felt persecuted by the very practices that the amendments you mentioned have reversed. As the majority opinion in Engel v. Vitale said, "it is a matter of history that this very practice of establishing governmentally composed prayers for religious services was one of the reasons which caused many of our early colonists to leave England and seek religious freedom in America."

    Does it not therefore make sense for such a nation to be wary of anything that may potentially encroach upon the rights of religious minorities? While it may perhaps seem prudent in a democracy for "people to decide for themselves their local level of religious expression" we must not forget that in every locality there are religious minorities whose 1st amendment rights will be violated if one particular religion's practices become mandate. The 1st amendment protects this minority and also protects the right of the religious Conservatives you speak of to be legislators or judges whose Christian tenets influence their decisions. However, these decisions, as you mention, should still take into consideration the American people--not all of whom are Christian. The 'ever-eroding barrier' may or may not be a lie, only time can provide perspective on this, but as one of the left-leaning people you speak of I can also see that historical precedent includes the illegality of gay marriage in most of the country and the continued prevalence of abstinence-only sex ed--both of which are rooted deeply in religion but also to a very large degree concern the state. Any success in creating a solid barrier between the church and the state, be it undeserved or not, has not been as far-reaching as you argue it to be and I fail to see how any amendment has encroached upon people's continued right to express and practice their religion freely.

  • Y'10

    Post #2: "Actions such as the banning of gay marriage and the push to overturn Roe v. Wade are largely motivated by the beliefs of Christians. This makes "The Left" nervous, and I think rightfully so. Just because the most prevalently practiced religion in the USA is Christian doesn't mean that the government should decide things based on a Christian ideology"

    People tend to forget that issues like abortions are not exclusively religiously driven. I was raised in an atheist family and I'm still atheist. But I am vehemently opposed to abortion because it goes against my moral values. Christian communities are advocating pro-life policies because that is what they believe is right, not because they try to instate Christian ideology in the government. The government shouldn't dismiss certain opinions and views just because they belong to religious people. Environmentalists promote their own views and advocate green policies because they believe that's best for society. How is this any different from Christian groups advocating pro-life policies? They're not asking you to pray to God or something.

    If the "left" continue to block opinions that may be influenced by Christianity and other religions just because they disagree with liberal ideology, they might as well advocate for the government to decide things based on an atheist ideology. Atheism can have the same oppressive effects on government as any other religions, and i'm disappointed that people are taking it down that path.