“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.”
The First Amendment is always in the news, but recently a group of law students laughed at the supposed ignorance of Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell. She seemed to question whether the First Amendment contained the words “separation of church and state.” The law students who laughed at her supposed ignorance may have thought that she did not understand that the strict separation of church and state that they assume is part of the Constitution has become court doctrine for about fifty years. The truth is that the actual phrase is not found in the Constitution itself.
Instead the phrase “wall of separation” does occur in a letter by Thomas Jefferson to a religious congregation in Danbury, Connecticut. Jefferson’s exact meaning is subject to interpretation and disagreement. One example is that while the First Amendment restricts the powers of the federal government to meddle in religious affairs, is it permissible for people who are religious to meddle in the affairs of government. Can they practice or display icons of their religion on government property? Would these acts or displays constitute the “free exercise thereof?” Would a restriction of these practices violate a citizen’s right to engage in the free exercise thereof? Would religious displays be a promotion of that particular brand of faith by the government because it is on government property and thus should be restricted? There are no simple answers that I can discern.
A wall is a barrier and exists and serves to separate. Separation of church and state would mean to me that faith based colleges could not receive any federal funding for any reason, and yet they do. Even a research grant by the federal government that is not related to a religious purpose given to a religious based university or college could be construed as aid to the institution and it is an exercise in mental gymnastics to pretend otherwise. The First Amendment states that congress can make no law respecting an establishment of religion. In order for federal funds to be allocated, a law has to be passed. Doesn’t this violate the idea of making no law? How is this justified if there is, as Jefferson stated and many interpret that he meant that the wall means, a total separation between church and state?
Faith based social initiatives also receive money from the government as long as the specific money does not promote religion. It could be argued that the resources given to the faith based religious initiatives can be used to help maintain the financial viability of those facilities. This funding would allow other money that might be used to maintain viability to be freed up to engage in actual faith promoting activities. This sleight of hand looks pretty obvious. How are these things possible if there is a true “wall of separation?”
Additionally, the First Amendment was written for the federal government and the state governments were not so restricted. Then how did it come to pass that in order for a group or governing body to display religious icons on public property it ends up in federal court? This is due to the Fourteenth Amendment which the courts have determined as what is called the incorporation clause contained within. This means that the same bill of rights that not only restrict federal powers restrict state powers also. The relevant sections of the fourteenth amendment to this discussion are sections 1 and 5.
Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Section 5. The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
The courts have interpreted this as meaning that those rights granted by the bill of rights at the federal level also prevent the states from restricting these rights. This is why when local governments have issues like prayers in schools or religious displays they end up in federal court.
Unfortunately, O’Donnell did not elaborate on what she actually believes the First Amendment means. Her opponent in the race for the senate seat, from Delaware, Chris Coons, did not acquit himself well in this incident when he could not name the five freedoms found in the first amendment. The meaning of the First Amendment has been interpreted by many courts and many people. This is an interesting discussion and not as clear cut as the snickering ignoramuses at the law school and their equally ill-informed comrades in the leftstream media who also displayed contempt for Ms. O‘Donnell.