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Conflict and Confusion Around Church-State Separation

by Paul Rasor, Center Director

"Separation of church and state has gone too far." This is a sentiment we often hear these days. Yet most of the people who say this also say that religious freedom is one of our most precious rights. These two beliefs are, at bottom, contradictory. What's going on here?

Many Americans apparently fail to make the connection between religious freedom and separation of church and state. A recent nation wide survey bears this out. It reveals deep ambivalence and widespread misunderstanding about the foundations of religious freedom in the United States. The survey, sponsored by the Council for America' First Freedom, a non-profit educational organization in Richmond, Va., paints a picture of a confused and conflicted America.

Nearly a third of those surveyed (31%) named freedom of religion as the most important constitutional guarantee, second only to freedom of speech. And nearly 90% rejected the idea that the country would be better off if we all practiced the same religion. These findings indicate that religious freedom is among our most deeply held values.

Yet responses to other questions indicate that many of us don't support -- or don't understand -- the kinds of civic practices required to maintain these values. Half of those surveyed said that church-state separation should be interpreted less strictly or simply is not needed at all. This general belief was echoed in questions about specific government sponsored religious activities. More than half (54%) would not oppose displays of religious symbols on public property, such as posting the Ten Commandments in a courthouse lobby or displaying a nativity scene in the cafeteria of a public office building.  The same number supported designating time during school hours for students to pray aloud, either alone or in groups. This rose to two-thirds (66%) when the context was shifted to silent prayer or after-school prayer.

Most of these practices have been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. At one level, these findings may simply mean that much of the public disagrees with the Court. This is perfectly understandable; I disagree with the Court much of the time myself. But at a deeper level, the survey results suggest that far too many Americans do not understand what the Constitution -- and religious freedom -- requires.

Last October, a piece by Virginian-Pilot columnist Kerry Dougherty reflected the same confusion. Criticizing the Portsmouth School Board for its decision to stop opening meetings with prayer, Dougherty opined that the Portsmouth schools "could use a little divine intervention" and suggested that prayer might help third graders' reading levels. But of course private prayer for the board or its students -- even private prayer by board members or students -- is perfectly proper. Dougherty does not mention this. Instead, after insisting that she believes in the establishment clause of the First Amendment, "the one that prohibits government from establishing a state-sponsored religion," she makes two provocative and ultimately wrongheaded claims.

First, she states "no thinking person could possibly interpret a simple blessing at the start of a school board meeting as a sneaky attempt by evangelical school officials to form the Our Lady of the 3 R's Church." But this misses the point. However innocuous it may seem, and however much she thinks the board may need divine help, an officially sponsored prayer at a public school board meeting is an establishment of religion within the meaning of the First Amendment. For most believers, prayer is a profoundly meaningful religious activity. Moreover, a prayer is always grounded in the religious tradition of the person offering it, no matter how generic or "non-denominational" its language may be. Any form of prayer in a public school setting cannot help but be a government sanctioned religious activity, the very thing the establishment clause was designed to prevent.

Dougherty's other comment is even more problematic. "Around the country," she claims, "timid elected officials have allowed themselves to be cowed by nonbelievers, crazy federal judges and others who won't rest until it's socially unacceptable - or illegal - to whisper the word 'God' in public." Even discounting the hyperbole, Dougherty has it wrong on two counts. First, it is not just nonbelievers who object to public prayer. Generic prayers -- the kind of prayer now most often used in public settings -- not only offend nonbelievers, they also offend many deeply religious people. This is because it is the specific content of their faith traditions -- the very things that make them different -- that give them meaning. This may surprise you, but when the Supreme Court hears an important school prayer case, many Christian denominations file briefs with the Court opposing the prayers.

Second, to say that separation of church and state has gone too far, or that crazy judges and nonbelievers won't be happy until they get rid of religion altogether, is not only just plain wrong, it indicates a fundamental confusion about what church-state separation means. No one is suggesting that religious people should not be involved in debate about public issues, or that they shouldn't bring their faith perspectives to bear on these issues. Besides, there is no real danger that religious voices in America will be silenced. The airwaves, internet and newspapers are full of these voices. This is as it should be.

The problem comes when particular voices seek not merely to participate in the public dialogue, but to dominate it. Given the current political climate, Dougherty's take on the timidity of our elected officials seems backward. It may take more courage to resist being cowed by over-zealous believers who won't rest until our schools and other public venues become conduits for their own religious views.

Many people wrongly equate religious freedom with activities like school prayer. Many believe their freedom, and perhaps even their religion, was compromised when public schools could no longer sponsor Bible readings and prayers. But this is simply not so. When people support government sponsored religious practices in the name of religious freedom, we have a serious disconnect. Our religious freedom is weakened, not strengthened, by official religious activities. As James Madison recognized, "religion flourishes in greater purity without, than with the aid of government." It makes me ask whether those who want the government to sanction their religious practices are really seeking religious power, not religious freedom.

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