Theocrats, Moral Relativism & the Myth of Religious Tolerance, Part II: Are We Hostile Toward or Encouraging Religious Belief?

In a comment to the Part I posting, Joe Mahn writes:

…From my simple perspective and I think in the context of the actual events of the time religious freedom meant that no State in the Union under the Constitution could force, by law, any citizen to participate in, confess, or otherwise practice any particular State sanctioned or preferred religion. It would also forbid the creation of a State religion with attendant threats of incarceration or imposition of any punishment upon said citizens.
The objective of these freedoms was to allow citizens to believe what they wanted with no interference from the State as well as guarantee that States not mandate one religion, or sect within a religion, over another.
From that point going forward governments across the land, from municipal to federal, acknowledged God, His laws, and many other events and rituals of the Christian faith with little or no dissent. That all changed in the late 1940’s when the US Supreme Court violated the Constitution by interfering in the rights of the sovereign states and prohibiting the free exercise of religion.
It’s been all downhill from there….

Let’s give a specific example of how much things have changed in our understanding of the relationship between the State and religion over the last 50 years: Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas was know as a very liberal justice of the court. Yet, in Zorach v. Clauson, a 1952 case, he wrote for the Court with these words:

New York City has a program which permits its public schools to release students during the school day so that they may leave the school buildings and school grounds and go to religious centers for religious instruction or devotional exercises. A student is released on written request of his parents. Those not released stay in the classrooms. The churches make weekly reports to the schools, sending a list of children who have been released from public school but who have not reported for religious instruction…
It takes obtuse reasoning to inject any issue of the “free exercise” of religion into the present case. No one is forced to go to the religious classroom, and no religious exercise or instruction is brought to the classrooms of the public schools. A student need not take religious instruction. He is left to his own desires as to the manner or time of his religious devotions, if any…
Moreover…we do not see how New York by this type of “released time” program has made a law respecting an establishment of religion within the meaning of the First Amendment…
And so far as interference with the “free exercise” of religion and an “establishment” of religion are concerned, the separation must be complete and unequivocal. The First Amendment within the scope of its coverage permits no exception; the prohibition is absolute. The First Amendment, however, does not say that, in every and all respects there shall be a separation of Church and State. Rather, it studiously defines the manner, the specific ways, in which there shall be no concert or union or dependency one on the other. That is the common sense of the matter. Otherwise the state and religion would be aliens to each other — hostile, suspicious, and even unfriendly. Churches could not be required to pay even property taxes. Municipalities would not be permitted to render police or fire protection to religious groups. Policemen who helped parishioners into their places of worship would violate the Constitution. Prayers in our legislative halls; the appeals to the Almighty in the messages of the Chief Executive; the proclamations making Thanksgiving Day a holiday; “so help me God” in our courtroom oaths — these and all other references to the Almighty that run through our laws, our public rituals, our ceremonies would be flouting the First Amendment. A fastidious atheist or agnostic could even object to the supplication with which the Court opens each session: “God save the United States and this Honorable Court.”
We would have to press the concept of separation of Church and State to these extremes to condemn the present law on constitutional grounds. The nullification of this law would have wide and profound effects. A Catholic student applies to his teacher for permission to leave the school during hours on a Holy Day of Obligation to attend a mass. A Jewish student asks his teacher for permission to be excused for Yom Kippur. A Protestant wants the afternoon off for a family baptismal ceremony. In each case, the teacher requires parental consent in writing. In each case, the teacher, in order to make sure the student is not a truant, goes further and requires a report from the priest, the rabbi, or the minister. The teacher, in other words, cooperates in a religious program to the extent of making it possible for her students to participate in it. Whether she does it occasionally for a few students, regularly for one, or pursuant to a systematized program designed to further the religious needs of all the students does not alter the character of the act.
We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being. We guarantee the freedom to worship as one chooses. We make room for as wide a variety of beliefs and creeds as the spiritual needs of man deem necessary. We sponsor an attitude on the part of government that shows no partiality to any one group and that lets each flourish according to the zeal of its adherents and the appeal of its dogma. When the state encourages religious instruction or cooperates with religious authorities by adjusting the schedule of public events to sectarian needs, it follows the best of our traditions. For it then respects the religious nature of our people and accommodates the public service to their spiritual needs. To hold that it may not would be to find in the Constitution a requirement that the government show a callous indifference to religious groups. That would be preferring those who believe in no religion over those who do believe. Government may not finance religious groups nor undertake religious instruction nor blend secular and sectarian education nor use secular institutions to force one or some religion on any person. But we find no constitutional requirement which makes it necessary for government to be hostile to religion and to throw its weight against efforts to widen the effective scope of religious influence
But we cannot expand it to cover the present released time program unless separation of Church and State means that public institutions can make no adjustments of their schedules to accommodate the religious needs of the people. We cannot read into the Bill of Rights such a philosophy of hostility to religion.

How things change. Today, we hear examples of how a Christian student club cannot even meet after school on school property – while a gay & lesbian student club can. The issue for many of us is not the latter club’s ability to meet. Rather, it is the exclusion of the former club’s ability to meet.
Unfortunately, in yet another tribute to our lack of knowledge of American history, enough time has passed with these current practices being the norm so that most American’s think it was never otherwise.

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Greg
Greg
15 years ago

“Unfortunately, in yet another tribute to our lack of knowledge of American history, enough time has passed with these current practices being the norm so that most American’s think it was never otherwise.”
I would add to this though that an intentional mis-education of today’s children has led an entire generation to believe that the words “Separation of Church and State” actually appear somewhere in the Constitution.

Rino Cooke
Rino Cooke
15 years ago

You really are an angry, arrogant tool aren’t you?

Suzanne
Suzanne
15 years ago

Donald – I do not see how the paragraph you bolded contradicts the assertion in Joe Mahn’s post. In fact, that paragraph ultimately agrees with him – the state cannot coerce individuals to take part in religion or religious practices.
It is unfortunate that most Americans are unaware of history. For instance, most Americans are unaware that the disestablishment clause in the 1st Amendment was written to protect religious institutions from the state, not vice versa. It is unfortunate that many Americans cannot see the damage that is caused to religious institutions by the co-mingling of the two, how much religious institutions are harmed when they become too closely aligned with political ideology.

Donald B. Hawthorne
Donald B. Hawthorne
15 years ago

Suzanne: I agree completely with you. I share Mr. Mahn’s belief and used the 1952 Supreme Court case – written by a most liberal judge no less – to reinforce his observation about how much things have changed in the last 50 years. I think many American citizens don’t realize the extent of the change – for the worse – and I wanted to highlight that. Don

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