between church and state

Between Church and State: Religion and Public Education in a Multicultural America, by James W. Fraser

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  1. I sometimes think that I live in a relatively pluralistic, modern, tolerant, scientific, secular country. Yet, I know that religion is embedded everywhere, is indeed the road we walk on, all of us, even the atheists and agnostics among us.

    Some think that this country was founded on the Jeffersonian ideal of a high and strong wall between church and state, and others see this country as one that was founded to be – and should continue to be – a distinctly Christian nation governed by Bible-based laws such as creationism, a nation that has tragically departed from these roots and laws, and so must reclaim our Christian heritage.

    But, as the author says in the introduction, “to say that the nation is more secular or more religious misses the point … the people of the United States are [now] more secular, especially in their public culture, more religious in many different private forms, and more diverse than ever before in the nation’s history” (p.4)

    And the overwhelmingly common tendency to oversimplify things is unhelpful: “only a careful and thoughtful historical analysis of the many different ways that different generations and different citizens have approached [questions of religion and education] in the past can inform the current debate that must be rich, nuanced, and filled with intellectual curiosity and compassion” (p.4).

    Fraser certainly offers just such a careful and thoughtful historical analysis in this fascinating and very readable book, in which he makes it clear that there has never really been any consensus about what separation of church and state means.

    Here are a few fun facts from Fraser’s history:

    (1) Just less than 200 years ago in this country:

    i. Maryland still prohibited Jews and atheists from office (p. 20).

    ii. Catholic students in public schools suffered corporal punishments for refusing to read a particular translation (KJV) of the Bible (p. 49).

    iii. Anti-Catholic rallies took place in Catholic neighborhoods in Philadelphia (p. 50).

    iv. We still had state religion. Massachusetts had its state church until 1833. It was only with the 14th Amendment in 1868 that the protections of the Bill of Rights were applied to the states, and not until 1947 (!) did the US Supreme Court specifically apply the religion-clause to the states (and in 2014 [!!!] two Supreme Court justices, Thomas and Scalia, challenged even that interpretation!) (p. 18).

    (2) It was not until 1978 (within my own lifetime!) that Congress finally declared that First Amendment rights did, in fact, apply to Native American Indians (p. 103)!!!

    (3) Even today, strikingly, there are attempts to teach creationism in public-school biology classes (in 2005, officials in Kansas changed state science standards to enable ID [ie, creationism] to be taught with evolution in biology classes [p. 1]). It is alarming to me that this is still debated, when it is clearly (to me at least!) prohibited by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, not to mention the Supreme Court.

    (4) There have been at least 4 recent failed efforts to amend US Constitution or other legislation in support of public-school prayer:

    i. November 1995 by representative Ernest Istook, Republican of Oklahoma

    ii. February 1994 by Senator Helms of North Carolina and Senator Lott of Mississippi

    iii. June 1998 when a majority of the House of Representatives voted in favor of the proposed Religious Freedom Amendment

    iv. 1964 by congressman Frank Becker of New York

    It is striking that those supporting these attempts feel so very threatened – by, for example, the worry that God is being “thrown out” of the schools – that they feel such a pressing need for this legislation, despite the fact that the Constitution already allows – indeed protects – school prayer insofar as it protects expression of religion (eg, students praying in school, bringing their scripture to school, etc). What seems clear to me, but not to those supporting these legislative attempts, is that the First Amendment prohibition against government establishment of religion does not mean that God has been expelled.

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