Another case concerning church and state has come before the US Supreme Court, which today announced its decision in “Town of Greece v. Galloway.” Greece, a New York town of nearly 100,000 people, has a long-standing tradition of opening local governmental meetings. That tradition was challenged by resident Susan Galloway, whose position was that it violates the First Amendment.
By a narrow margin, the Court upheld the practice, arguing that the tradition is well established at numerous levels, including the Federal, and has been so since before the founding of the US.
Legally, the case is decided on the basis of our interpretation of the First Amendment, which states that “Congress shall make to law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . .” It has long been held to apply not just to Congress but to all governmental bodies at national, state, or local levels. This is because of the Fourteenth Amendment, which says, “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States. . .”
In the history of the development of democracy, the 1st Amendment is one of the greatest steps forward. We like to think it came about because of America’s love of freedom of religion. That is true only to a degree. It would be more accurate to note that each Colony had it own religious background and the Founders, when envisioning principles of government for the entire nation, could never have come up with a principle of Church and State which satisfied the various Colonial establishments. Their solution — separation of Church and State — was brilliant and now in hindsight seems inevitable. Both democracy and freedom of religion would be hindered by any less.
The question is, How literally and strictly and broadly do we apply the 1st Amendment? If we look at history, as the Court did in today’s decision, we cannot escape the fact that not until the past few decades has anyone tried to interpret and apply it strictly. Even Thomas Jefferson, the author of the famous phrase “wall of separation between Church and State,” never argued against established religion at the state level. His own state, Virginia, of which he was governor for a two-year term beginning in 1779, adopted a plan of religious freedom in 1786. That plan, called The Statute for Virginia of Religious Freedom, was written by Thomas Jefferson. It begins with these words:
Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free;
That all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and therefore are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being Lord, both of body and mind yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do. . .
In the Declaration of Independence, also written by Jefferson, we find these words:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
Jefferson is the most visible of the Founders who favored separation of Church and State but he is also an apt representative for the views of most if not all of the others. And even Jefferson believed that our fundamental values as a people were grounded upon and derived from a faith in God as Creator and Sovereign.
If we choose to say that history is irrelevant, that the Founders interpretation of the 1st Amendment ought not to influence our own understanding of it, then we are left with a set of values with no foundation, no anchor.
That, of course, is exactly what we see happening in large parts of our culture today: Values shift rapidly, like twigs drifting aimlessly down a fast-flowing river. When we believe there is no basis for societal values, we soon see that there simply are no agreed upon values by which a society may organize and regulate itself.
This shift to simply voiding all values is already underway and will continue to worsen until we become overwhelmed by the chaos and begin to revert back. Take, for example, the question of abortion. Through all the debates and arguments and shouting matches, one question remains central (though rarely addressed directly): When does humanness, personhood, human dignity begin? If we have no basis for answering that question, we end up — as the majority of people have done already — simply dismissing altogether the humanity of the unborn baby.
Furthermore, if we dismiss the historical argument for continuing with public prayer, we end up believing that the Founders wrote an amendment without actually knowing what they were talking about. If we now say the 1st Amendment means a graduation speech cannot mention God or a dollar bill cannot say “In God We Trust” or Congress cannot open its sessions with prayer, we are in effect claiming that for more than two centuries no Americans had a clue what the 1st Amendment says. That is a narrow-minded hubris that is unbearable and unsustainable.