Religious Liberty Requires Government Neutrality
written by Charles Sumner
Introduction to this historical series
This series of articles is the result of collaboration between David Miller and Charles Sumner. Miller has an M.A. in Government from the University of Virginia, has taught political science, and is working on his dissertation for his doctoral degree. He resides in Seattle, Washington. Charles Sumner is a resident of Nashville, a graduate of Cornell University, and has been involved in church-state relations for many years. Both are officers in chapters of the national organization, Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
The Nashville Free Press will have a series of articles over a period of several months intended to provide insight into the history of separation of church and state and how it has affected religious liberty in this nation.
There will be an attempt to look at all sides of the debate, from those who believe we are a Christian nation to those who believe religion has no place in government. The line between church and state has sometimes been difficult to define, and it has often been crossed not only by those who want church and state more closely aligned, but also by some of the strongest advocates for separation of church and state.
The influence of religion on politics extends beyond just what is said from a pulpit. For example, issues of separation involve our tax code, our public school system, and lobbying efforts by religious groups.
Much of the controversy around separation of church and state centers around the meaning of the religion clauses of the First Amendment to the Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ..."
What do these words mean to you? Your understanding of these two clauses may depend somewhat upon your religious upbringing and any education you may have had about constitutional law. It is possible that your views may change as we proceed.
In discussions about this topic some may freely toss about the term "First Amendment" when discussing religious liberty. One must remember that the First Amendment also is your protection for other freedoms - freedoms of speech, press, assembly and the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Why do we have a First Amendment? Who wanted it and why? Is personal religious belief strengthened or weakened by state support of religion?
You may wish to think of your answers to numerous questions that relate to church and state:
- Should a judge be permitted to post the Ten Commandments in his courtroom?
- Should a preacher be permitted to endorse a candidate from the pulpit?
- Are faith-based initiatives a violation of church-state separation?
- Should "In God we Trust" be our national motto? Is it a violation of church and state?
- What place should there be for prayer in the public schools?
- Should creationism or intelligent design be taught in a public school science class? In any class?
- Should we subject presidential candidates to an unofficial "religious test"?
- Are we a Christian nation?
These issues and questions have been known to generate a lot of heat. These are all thorny issues that get at the heart of what we mean when we discuss how the First Amendment impacts religious liberty. In many cases the courts have provided answers for us, but often lower courts have disagreed and required the Supreme Court to make a decision. And as the composition of the High Court has changed, some of the decisions have changed the location of the line between church and state.
You can anticipate that this column will discuss the history of church and state and issues related to it but won't discuss the merits of any particular religious viewpoint or religion in general. The next issue will treat American history in the 1630s.
Listen to 98.9 Wednesdays from 3 to 4 pm for Church & State Today. Find out more about how religious liberty is faring at www.Nashville-AU.org.
Why Do We Need a Progressive Newspaper?
published in the September 3rd edition of the Nashville Free Press
Jefferson's "Wall of Separation"
published in the August 6th edition of the Nashville Free Press
The Sage of Monticello
published in the June 18th edition of the Nashville Free Press
The Enlightenment and Deism
published in the June 4th edition of the Nashville Free Press
America as a "Religious Refuge"
published in the May 7th edition of the Nashville Free Press
Conflicts over Religion and Government
published in the April 23rd edition of the Nashville Free Press
Roger Williams - Freedom's Forgotten Hero
published in the April 9th edition of the Nashville Free Press
Religious Liberty in Colonial America
published in the March 12th edition of the Nashville Free Press
Religious Liberty Requires Government Neutrality
published in the February 26th edition of the Nashville Free Press
Charles Darwin's 200th Birthday
published in the February 12th edition of the Nashville Free Press
Is Posting the Ten Commandments Moral or Immoral?
published in the January 29th edition of the Nashville Free Press
Three-Minute Introduction to Separation of Church and State
published in the January 15th edition of the Nashville Free Press