|The Constitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State|
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The National Day of Prayer is a good day to recall our nation's religious heritage. What better day for remembering our government's founding? Let us begin with the Declaration of Independence.
In 1776 we declared our freedom from England. We proclaimed something radical in Christendom -- that "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." We asserted the right of Men to create their own governments with limited powers. We rejected Kings coronated by Bishops to rule with God's unlimited authority.
The Declaration mentions "the Laws of Nature and Nature's God", but only asked for the support of the "Supreme Judge of the world" while proclaiming independence solely "by Authority of the good People of these United States".
We thus became the first nation to establish government on the authority of the people. We also became the first nation to reference a deistic god of natural religion. That's why the god-talk of the Declaration lacks Christian references.
The 1787 Constitution continues the Declaration's themes. The preamble begins with "We the People of the United States" and ends with "do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." We the People, not God, "ordain" our government.
The Constitution continues with no mention of Jesus or deity, excepting the date reference. Religion is only mentioned as a prohibition against religious tests for office.
The omission of God, Jesus and religion were not accidental. Our founders never prayed during Constitutional Convention sessions. Two motions for prayers (Franklin and Randall) were allowed to die by adjournment. Franklin's notes said only "three or four" were for prayers, while the rest thought them "unnecessary".
We the People delegated to government ONLY those powers listed in the Constitution. Government has no powers over the Rights of Men because it was given no such powers. The founders actually saw a list of Rights as unnecessary. Alexander Hamilton stated this in "The Federalist". "For why declare that things shall not be done which there is no power to do? Why, for instance, should it be said that the liberty of the press shall not be restrained, when no power is given by which restrictions may be imposed?"
There was a struggle between those who wanted religion in government and those who supported separation of religion from government. Religionists wanted Jesus and God put into the Constitution and the prohibition against religious tests for office struck out. Despite opposition, the Constitution was ratified as written.
This is the basis for America's religious freedom -- a Constitution which gives to government zero powers to do anything religious.
Government officials have supported and conducted religious activities. They have done so despite their oath to uphold the Constitution as the "Supreme Law of the Land".
The issue is whether or not government officials must obey the Constitution they swore to uphold. Everyone understands that traditions of violating the Constitution do not change the Constitution. Thus, officials must obey the Constitution in their duties and not support or conduct religious activities.
But, did our founders really intend church-state separation? While the Constitution is the most important evidence that they did, there are other examples.
On February 21, 1811, President James Madison, arguably the primary architect of the Constitution, vetoed a bill to establish a church in Washington, "Because the bill exceeds the rightful authority to which governments are limited by the essential distinction between civil and religious functions". Madison clearly states that government powers are limited to civil functions.
In his "Essays on Monopolies", Madison states the lack of Constitutional authority for government chaplains and prayers. "Is the appointment of Chaplains to the two Houses of Congress consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom? In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the United States forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion. The law appointing Chaplains establishes a religious worship for the national representatives, to be performed by Ministers of religion, elected by a majority of them, and these are to be paid out of the national taxes. Does this not involve the principle of a national establishment?"
There is also President Thomas Jefferson's rejection of the Danbury Baptists' request for a national day of fasting and prayer because it violated the "wall of separation" between "church and state". While some say there is no "wall of separation" in the Constitution, a Constitution which fails to mention deity or religion, and which gives government no powers to do religious things, in fact separates religion from government as effectively as can be imagined.
The First Amendment begins with "Congress shall make no law." You can't get new governmental powers from this prohibition. To say this amendment only prohibits a national religion misunderstands that government powers must be explicitly stated, not inferred as if government has all powers except for those civil rights which are listed. The ninth and tenth amendments further emphasize that We the People retain all other rights.
Americans are free to celebrate a National Day of Prayer. Such celebrations can be held on public property where public or free speech gatherings are allowed. Public officials can participate if they do so as private individuals and not as part of their functions of office. This preserves the private freedom to celebrate religion as we choose.
What violates Constitutional separation of religion from government are acts by public officials that support or appear to support religious activities. These include:
We have perhaps the greatest freedom of conscience of any nation. Yes, Constitutional separation of religion from government is unpopular with many to the point of denying it exists. Separation of religion from government has, however, allowed religion to flourish in America such that we are now the most religious of any industrialized nation.
We certainly have the freedom to oppose separation of religion from government. We should in good conscience, then, be honest in our opposition to our founders' Constitution. We should not pretend there never was separation of religion from government.