Christian Men's Breakfast

Presentation by Chuck Esposito

March 4, 2006

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"Separation of Church and State"


Thank you I.T., and good morning gentlemen.

The fact that I am addressing you for the second month in a row should not be taken as the beginning of a pattern of things to come. When IT phoned me two days ago and asked if I would speak to you this morning, I agreed, but only if he would not ask me again next month, or the month after that , or the month after that , or the month after that …

Those of you who have heard me speak here before may recall that one of my recurring themes has been the Christian roots of the founding of our nation, and today, I’d like to continue on that theme. It seems an especially appropriate topic this morning, since it was exactly 217 years ago today, that the US Constitution went into effect.

With the season of Lent upon us, and as we get closer to Easter, we should be prepared to hear more talk about the “separation of church and state,” and about the “Establishment Clause”; that part of the First Amendment which reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This morning I’ll be using the terms “establishment of religion” and “established religion,” in the same way the Founders used those terms – i.e., to mean the religion that is the official, state supported religion of a nation: such as the Anglican Church of England, which many colonials escaped from to seek religious freedom in the New World; and such as Islam, which is recognized today by 30 countries as their state religion. So, my main topic this morning will be the “separation of church and state,” and the “Establishment Clause”; but first, a short background may be useful.

Thomas Jefferson thought the best way to understand the meaning of the Constitution was to, “carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates, and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text or invented against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed." I’m going to follow that advice, and to begin with, I’d like you to join me in a trip back in time to the Constitutional Convention. As you may recall from your school-days history lessons, not only was the weather hot in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, but so were the debates among the 55 delegates, who, eventually, split along Federalist & Anti-Federalist lines.

One of the major differences between the two factions was the question of the need for a Bill of Rights to protect religious freedom and other individual freedoms from the federal government.

Everyone admitted the pre-existence of civil and religious rights , but the Federalists insisted that there was no need to add a bill of rights because the federal government would be authorized to exercise only those powers enumerated in the Constitution, and no provision authorized the government to act against civil and religious rights. The Anti-Federalists were suspicious of a central government, and felt there was definitely a need to include a list of rights which were sacrosanct, untouchable, and not to be infringed. The basic Constitution would specify what the government could do, but a Bill of Rights would specify what it absolutely could not do.

This consideration was so important to three Anti-Federalists - George Mason, Edmund Randolph and Elbridge Gerry - that, when the final draft of the Constitution did not include a Bill of Rights, they refused to sign it. Earlier in the Convention, four Anti-Federalists walked out in protest, and never did return. Because of this major disagreement, some members of the Convention, led by James Madison, promised that if the Constitution was ratified, a proposal for a Bill of Rights would be taken up in the first Congress. That was back in the days when the promise of a politician had value, and, true to his word, James Madison presented the first draft of the Bill of Rights to Congress in the summer of 1789. And that’s the short background I wanted to share with you.

As many of you already know (and, contrary to popular belief), the expression, “separation of church and state,” does not appear in the US Constitution, nor in any of the other founding documents of our nation. In fact, the expression did not became part of the American political lexicon until 1802, when newly elected President Thomas Jefferson used it in responding to a letter from – none other than - a group of Baptists. Specifically, the Danbury Baptist Association in Danbury, CT.

At that time, the Danbury Baptists Association was a 26-church alliance in western CT, where the established religion was Congregationalism. The Baptists were a religious minority who were worried about their religious freedom so they wrote to President Jeffferson to express their concern whether “religious priviledges” were deemed as “inalienable rights” or if they were subject to withdrawl by civil authorities.

Here is an extract of Jefferson’s response:

"Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state."

As I understand these words, Jefferson was merely confirming that the federal government would not establish a national church; and that all citizens would be able to enjoy the free exercise of religion without infringement by the federal government: that there would be a wall of separation, a barrier, if you will, between the citizens’ free exercise of religion, and infringement by the federal government.

Unfortunately, today, some people, including The Supreme Court, have the mistaken notion that Jefferson’s "wall of separation" defines a barrier between religion and public life, between God and politics, and even forbids government officials, such as school teachers, from engaging in, sponsoring, or permitting, public prayer. Yet, President Jefferson closed this very same letter, with a prayer: "I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the common Father and Creator of man.” If the opinion of the Supreme Court is correct, Jefferson would have been breaking down the wall of separation at the very moment he proclaimed it! If the opinion of the Supreme Court is correct; then it should be unconstitutional to teach the Declaration of Independence in public schools, because the Declaration contains four distinct references to God. I don’t think that’s what Thomas Jefferson had in mind.

For today, that’s all I have to say about those tortured words, “separation of church and state.” And now I would like to briefly discuss the Establishment Clause, which, again, reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Those sixteen words, by the way, are the only words in the Constitution about religion.

As I mentioned earlier, the task of drafting the Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment, which contains the Establishment Clause, fell to James Madison, who proposed the following wording :

“The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, nor on any pretext, infringed.”

In that First Congress, just as in today’s Congress, virtually everything they approved turned out to be a compromise, so the counter-proposals started coming in. I don’t have the time, and I don’t think you have the interest, in reviewing all the counter-proposals, but I will review a few with you.

The House Select Committee reduced Madison’s 40 word sentence to the following : “No religion shall be established by law, nor shall the equal rights of conscience be infringed.”

Samuel Livermore of NH proposed the following: “Congress shall make no laws touching religion, or infringing the rights of conscience.”

Finally, the full House agreed on the following wording:

Congress shall make no law establishing religion, or to prevent the free exercise thereof, or to infringe the rights of conscience.”

Over in the Senate, their initial version read: “Congress shall make no law establishing religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

I don’t know about you, but I think that sounds pretty good, and they should have stopped right there!

The final Senate version was worded:

“Congress shall make no law establishing articles of faith or a mode of worship, or prohibiting the free exercise of religion.”

Then, as now, the House and Senate versions went to a Conference Committee, and during the fourth week of September, 1789, the following final wording was approved, and eventually became the law of the land:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

And by the way, the same week Congress approved the final wording of the Establishment Clause, they also approved a salary, to be paid with taxpayer dollars, for a chaplain to begin every session of Congress with a prayer. Clearly the Founders did not view paid legislative chaplains, and opening prayers, as unconstitutional, and the practice of opening sessions of Congress with prayer has continued without interruption ever since.

I have just tried to follow Jefferson’s advice to, “recollect the spirit manifested in the debates,” and it is clear to me what the spirit manifested in those debates was: In each of the half a dozen variations I just read to you, the style and words were different, but in every proposal there were two key elements:

FIRST) to prohibit the creation of an official, state sponsored, national religion; and SECOND) to prohibit the federal government from infringing on the citizens’ free exercise of religion; it was not, as some would like us to believe, to prohibit children from saying “Happy Easter” or “Merry Christmas” in the schoolhouse. - Nevertheless, the Supreme Court has struck down prayers before football games, prayers at graduation, and has even upheld the denial of a state scholarship to an eligible college student because he selected a major in religious studies … all on the basis that these are violations of the Establishment Clause. It seems to me that the Supremes have exceeded their bounds; something Thomas Jefferson saw coming when he wrote,

“It has long been my opinion, and I have never shrunk from its expression,... that the germ of dissolution of our Federal Government is in the [character] of the Federal Judiciary--an irresponsible body , working like gravity by night and by day, gaining a little today and a little tomorrow, and advancing its noiseless step like a thief over the field of jurisdiction until all shall be usurped from the States, and the government be consolidated into one. To this I am opposed."

...And, in modern times, Supreme Court Justice Scalia recognized it when he wrote,

“…day by day, case by case, the Supreme Court is busy designing a Constitution for a country I do not recognize.”

Gentlemen, let us hope and pray that the two recent Supreme Count appointments help to bring the court back into line with what the Founding Fathers had in mind.

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Finally, every time I have been before you I have concluded with a prayer for our military, and I would like to do the same today. Please bow your heads and join me:

Dear Lord,
Today there are about half a million , American men and women –
stationed in 150 countries around the world.

We pray You keep them safe,
we pray You keep them strong,
we pray You send them safely home ...

Bless those who await their safe return.

And Bless the friends and relatives who mourn the casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan:

And Bless the friends and relatives who mourn the casualties in Iraq:

The MIAs, the 16,742 wounded, and the 2,299 Killed In Action.

In Jesus name we ask ...Amen.

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