Shortly after the Ice Age diminished, I started a chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Sonoma State University in California. This past summer I had the pleasure of meeting the current IV staff member and a few of the students in the group. We celebrated the 52 years of consistent ministry on that campus. And we talked about the time one of the professors tried to get us kicked off campus because he felt our presence violated the separation of Church and State. He and I met in public debate, first before the student senate and then before the faculty senate. And the group has remained on campus ever since.
This week, however, the chancellor of the state university system in California announced that such groups will no longer be treated as other groups and no longer allowed on state campuses.
Let’s be honest about one thing: Such decisions have nothing whatsoever to do with the American principle of separation of Church and State. For two centuries America lived with a healthy balance in church/state issues. The modern urge to discriminate against Christian groups grows out of a hatred for God, not a love of the Bill of Rights.
The Bill of Rights, despite all the public outcry in recent years, does not mention such a separation and no one for two centuries thought that it did. The idea certainly never occurred to those who wrote the Constitution and the First Amendment.
The First Amendment guarantees that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Where in those words do you find a separation of Church and State? All that is guaranteed is that government will not interfere with freedom of religion. Does that sound like a separation of Church and State?
It was Thomas Jefferson, writing as President to a group of Baptist pastors in Danbury, Connecticut, who first spoke of a “wall of separation between church and state.” In his letter it is inescapably clear that he means only one thing: Churches are protected from governmental interference.
For more than a century and a half the common view of the First Amendment was that it guarded religion from government. In 1947 Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black (Everson v Board of Education, 330 US 1), writing the majority opinion for the Court, inadvertently marked a change in our understanding of the First Amendment.
Emphasizing Jefferson’s figure of speech, Black wrote, “The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach.”
Black clearly did not envision that all connection between religion and government must be avoided absolutely, since his decision was that it is not a breach of the wall for a local school board in New Jersey to reimburse parents for the expenses of public transportation to and from a Catholic parochial school. Yet his view of the “high and impregnable” wall is often noted as the beginning of the contemporary idea that religious people must not influence political processes.
Now we are working hard in our society to protect the State from the Church. This is a complete reversal of the intent of the First Amendment and results in a violation of that Amendment, such as is happening in California’s universities. Whatever reasons a Chancellor may have for kicking InterVarsity off campus, the First Amendment has nothing to do with it.