31 May 2006: Church & State in Idaho Springs

Council ban heeds constitution’s intent

To say the least, the report of local religious groups using the Idaho Springs City Hall for their prayer meeting and the subsequent reaffirmation of the city council to make clear it was, is, and will be a forbidden practice has been interesting and instructional. The council’s rationale is simple: church and state are separate entities, and separate means just that. This once again gives evidence to the fact weighty constitutional issues are not simply grist for judicial activists such as Antonin Scalia to ponder in the airy confines of the Supreme Court. Such have meaning, immediate and consequential, even in backwater Clear Creek.

At first, the news caused me to scratch my head about the need for a Day of Prayer at all, for there are already at least fifty-two days ostensibly dedicated to that purpose. The response in last week’s Courant by local National Day of Prayer coordinators Rick Adams and David Barkey caused me to scratch my head even more, wondering why they would be in need to shelter themselves from God’s elements. Be that as it may, a quick look through the yellow pages suggested at least four other possible sites readily available, all on tax-free properties intended for the proscribed mission to pray—supposedly for all souls, including “infidels” such as myself.

Nevertheless, Adams and Barkey have made a valuable contribution with their letter by opening the door to this most critical debate: Where to draw the line between church and state? They suggest the violation of the church and state ideal is “bogus,” but they rest on faulty historicism by arguing, “The First Amendment of the Constitution was written to protect churches from State regulations that would interfere with their activities and also to protect the State from being dominated by one denomination, namely the Church of England. The writers had no intention of removing references to God or quotations from Scripture or appeals to prayer from the public square.”

For the most part the Founding Fathers intended to do just that. Exhibit A is the Constitution itself. Written a decade after the Declaration of Independence, which itself contains several references to some sort of deity including “Providence” and “Nature’s God,” the Constitution is painfully replete of any reference to God, Jesus, or Christianity. Instead, it addresses religion only in exclusionary terms: the First Amendment prohibitions and Article VI forbidding the use of religious test to hold office.

In the December 2005 copy of Mother Jones, Susan Jacoby recounts how the state of affairs in the states directly influenced the precise wording of the Constitution’s authors. She notes, for example, the 1786 Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, “which ruled out tax support for religious instruction and religious tests for public office,” was used as a model for the framers. Faced with “a crazy quilt of conflicting state laws,” she continues, “rooted in religious prejudice and incestuous Old World church state-state entanglements, they chose the Virginia model, which, as Jefferson proudly stated in his autobiography, ‘meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.’”

A statement in the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, perhaps written by President Washington himself and passed unanimously by the Senate reads, “The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” Hence, my point: Why was it necessary for participants to request a taxpayer-maintained facility to hold their ritual? The answer is something is more afoot than bringing awareness to the efficaciousness of daily prayer: The National Day of Prayer now being politicized as another insidious, backdoor attempt to breach the wall between church and state to make the United States a “Christian Republic.”

Adams and Barkey try to frame the debate not as an issue of freedom of religion, but rather as speech. That is becoming a standard “talking point” strategy for the right. In fact, it is fundamentally an issue of religious liberty, and to suggest other, is disingenuous at best. Americans have the constitutional right to worship pretty much as they see fit; churches, synagogues, temples, and other tax-free structures give them plenty of options to gather. Likewise, poll-watching presidents and governors are free to proclaim pretty much what they wish, but there is no resulting requirement that the rest of us need to foot the bill for someone else’s desire to pray. Concluding their letter, Adams and Barkey plaintively plea if “one hour a year is too much to ask.” In short, it is.

Jacoby quotes Ronald Reagan with his perspective: “We establish no religion in this country, we command no worship, we mandate no belief, nor will we ever. Church and state are, and what must remain, separate. All are free to believe or not to believe, all are free to practice a faith or not, and those who believe are free, and should be free, to speak and act on their belief. At the same time that our Constitution prohibits state establishment of religion, it protects the free exercise of all religions. And walking this fine line requires government to be strictly neutral [emphasis mine].”

Envision the Gipper, trotting along on his palomino in the Great Beyond, saying with a nod of his head and a wink of his eye to the Idaho Springs City Council, “Good job.”

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