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.

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