December 28, 2008

In Defense of Freedom: Part I

The 1st Amendment

The so called Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the 1st Amendment to the United States Constitution, direct the federal government to make no laws regarding the “…establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” The intent of this language was to prohibit Congress from making laws establishing a state religion, limiting or preventing the religious practice of the citizens, and to prevent state-sponsored persecution of citizens for religious practices. Effectively, the 1st Amendment should depoliticize religion and irreligion. However, due to zealots of all stripes, this has not been the case.

As it has throughout history, Christianity finds itself at the center of a large number of the controversies. In communities with majorities, common practices such as Christian prayers at state sponsored events are challenged by minority non-Christians. Various laws permitting or requiring prayers in school or at school functions have also been challenged with some cases appealed to the U.S. Supreme court. Inversely, Christians bent on finding some means or another of having their belief system included in governmental functions or public school curriculum have caused many court actions.

Barbarians at the Gates

Attempts to circumvent the Establishment clause have occurred many times. Probably the most famous was Tennessee House Bill 185, passed in 1925. This bill, known as the Tennessee Anti-Evolution statute, forbade state funded educational institutions “to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals”. The statute was tested and upheld in the infamous “Scopes Monkey Trial,” but the trial verdict was later overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court on technical grounds.

In 1928, the state of Arkansas adopted a statute much the same as that of Tennessee, which remained on the books until challenged in the 1967 case, Epperson v. Arkansas. The Arkansas courts affirmed the statute, so the contest made it to the U.S. Supreme Court where it was overturned. Justice Abe Fortas, writing for the majority, stated, “There is and can be no doubt that the First Amendment does not permit the State to require that teaching and learning must be tailored to the principles or prohibitions of any religious sect or dogma. In Everson v. Board of Education, this Court, in upholding a state law to provide free bus service to school children, including those attending parochial schools, said: 'Neither (a State nor the Federal Government) can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another”.

Once the Arkansas law was struck down, only Mississippi remained with an anti-evolution law on the book, and that fell some years later.

21st Century Questions

The Christian’s modern day Trojan Horse is Creation Science, or Intelligent Design, and the equivalent of the Scopes trial is Kitzmiller, et al v. Dover Area School District et al. The saga began at a meeting of the Dover, Pennsylvania school board, in which a new biology text was to be discussed. At one point in the meeting, Curriculum Committee chairman William Buckingham complained that the proposed replacement book was "laced with Darwinism," and challenged the audience to trace its roots back to a monkey. Buckingham then recommended the board adopt a textbook that would include biblical theories of creation.

Some brave soul stood and asked whether this might offend those of other faiths, to which Buckingham replied, "This country wasn't founded on Muslim beliefs or evolution. This country was founded on Christianity and our students should be taught as such." He further stated, "Two thousand years ago, someone died on a cross. Can't someone take a stand for him?" And "Nowhere in the Constitution does it call for a separation of church and state."

The desires of the Dover school board were at odds with the state’s academic standards, so eventually the board adopted by a vote of six to three, a resolution that required biology teachers to read a statement to students at the beginning of the school year. The resolution read, in part: "Students will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin's theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design. Note: Origins of Life is not taught."

A small number of Dover parents sued the school board, asking that the intelligent design policy be rescinded for fostering "excessive entanglement of government and religion, coerced religious instruction, and an endorsement by the state of religion over non-religion and of one religious viewpoint over others." Plaintiffs were represented by the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Of course, the Dover school board lost the case.

What Did the Founders Mean?

James Madison left the room a long time before the referenced court battles occurred, but I cannot help believing the good gentleman would take pride seeing the government he helped found testing itself and coming out clean. In a December 3, 1821 letter to Rev. F.L. Schaeffer regarding the laying of a cornerstone at New York’s St. Matthew’s church, Madison writes; “The experience of the United States is a happy disproof of the error so long rooted in the unenlightened minds of well-meaning Christians, as well as in the corrupt hearts of persecuting usurpers, that without a legal incorporation of religious and civil polity, neither could be supported. A mutual independence is found most friendly to practical Religion, to social harmony, and to political prosperity.”

The desires of the Founding Fathers to maintain a complete seperation is abundantly clear. These modern challenges, if debated by enlightened, honest folk in the bright light of public scrutiny, are of great benefit to our legal system and our collective sense of fairness. At this point in our history, the Establishment and Free Exercises clauses of the 1st Amendment have served us well.
Christians are free to practice their faith, while those of other faiths and the irreligious are free not to.

Part II will address the Freedom of Speech clause


Rogue Medic said...

Those who insist that religion be favored by our government, only do so when it is their religion that is favored. If we were to have Muslim practices favored by our government, the same people would be somewhat less supportive of this favoritism.

Mule Breath... said...

Regardless of how stated, the people making these moves have one interest - state sponsorship of a particular sect. This is the reason we must maintain a reasonable judiciary as our highest priority.