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A Word On The Establishment Clause

I recently had an exchange with someone where I was advancing the idea that more, not less, of what we find in Scripture would help resolve some of the problems we see in society. I had commented that even allowing teachers to talk about the Ten Commandments in the classroom would be a nice start for people interested in nice starts.

The challenge I received in response, as I should have anticipated, was about allowing teachers to talk about the Ten Commandments due to the separation of church and state. I received an email, which read as follows:

You advocated instruction of the Ten Commandments in public classrooms, saying it “would go a long way in terms of reforming the police and fighting racism.” But it’s also promoting specific Judeo-Christian views in public education, which is unconstitutional. They can’t even be posted in classrooms, although they can be used in “an appropriate study of history, civilization, ethics, comparative religion.” I understand you’re a devout Christian, and I respect that. Do you disagree with the constitutional separation of church and state?

A couple of points:

1. If it is appropriate to teach the Ten Commandments in school under some circumstances, or any circumstances, we should be doing that.

2. We should note that the objection is not about the effectiveness of what I have suggested to combat racism, but the freedom that should be afforded educators. Teachers are in an excellent position to teach about being productive members of society; I see no reason to exclude content that has proven to be effective towards that objective.

3. Let us suppose that this were unconstitutional. I do not believe that it is and I will address this point, but the question needs to be asked, why would we reject a promising path to addressing racism? If the action were unconstitutional, the question should have been about resolving the apparent tension and not dismissing the idea altogether.

We move on. I thought the email’s author was asking about a larger issue so I responded with the following:

I do not believe there is a constitutional separation of church and state.

I received a response to my response:

You said: “I do not believe there is a constitutional separation of church and state.” Why not? It’s considered a basic tenant of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The literal words don’t appear in the document, but that’s certainly its intent. The establishment clause prohibits all levels of government from either advancing or inhibiting religion. Why do you see it differently?

Two points:

1. The author of this email is correct that the phrase “separation of church and state” is not found in the constitution and we should not gloss over this acknowledgment too quickly. To claim that an action is in violation of a phrase that is not found in the grounding document used to evaluate the violation is problematic for persuasion.

2. The establishment clause does not prohibit “all levels of government” from advancing religion. The establishment clause only lists one body of government: Congress. The Founding Fathers understood the distinctions between federal, state, and local politics.

The Founding Fathers believed that your right to pray, read the Scriptures, and acknowledge God were inalienable rights, not government-given rights. They also believed these were freedoms. That said, Congress (not the fullness of government), was both restricted from establishing a national religion as it would rob you of your freedom to practice religion as you see fit, but Congress is also restricted from limiting, regulating, or interfering with your free exercise of religion.

The restrictions placed on religious practice and observance have helped usher in increasing wickedness in our society. The courts have often invoked the “separation” phrase and ruled that all things public and all things religious are mutually exclusive, but we have no good reason to believe that was the original intention of the First Amendment. It would benefit both our culture and our government to work towards this correction and renew the cooperative relationship between the church and state.

Rick Laib is the Republican candidate for the 11th Congressional District in Illinois. He can be reached at info@electricklaib.com

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