United Church of God, ia
Portland Oregon/The Dalles Oregon

Preaching the Gospel, Preparing a People

Separation of Church and State?

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

The first U.S. Congress adopted the first 10 amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, in 1791. The First Amendment went through extensive discussions and nearly a dozen drafts. They show the clear intent of the founding fathers-that they didn't want one Christian denomination running the nation. They did, however, firmly believe Christianity and biblical principles should be a part of American life.

The courts recognized this. For example, in a unanimous 1799 decision the Maryland Supreme Court declared:

"By our form of government, the Christian religion is the established religion; and all sects and denominations of Christians are placed on the same equal footing, and are equally entitled to protection in their religious liberty" (William Federer, America's God and Country Encyclopedia of Quotations, 1996, p.422).

In 1801 a Danbury, Conn., Baptist church wrote to President Thomas Jefferson after hearing a rumor that Congregationalism was to be made the national religion. Jefferson wrote back assuring members of the church that the First Amendment built "a wall of separation between church and state."

For a century and a half the common understanding of the First Amendment was that it prohibited establishing or sanctioning a single national Christian denomination. It was to keep government out of religion, not the other way around. Policies and rulings reflected that understanding.

For example, in 1854 a report of the U.S. House of Representatives' judiciary committee stated:

"At the time of the adoption of the Constitution and its amendments, the universal sentiment was that Christianity should be encouraged, but not anyone sect [denomination] . . . In this age, there is no substitute for Christianity. . . That was the religion of the founders of the republic and they expected it to remain the religion of their descendants" (David Barton, America's Godly Heritage video presentation, 1993).

The same committee later stated that:

"the great vital and conservative element in our system [the component that conserves and holds the system together] is the belief of our people in the pure doctrines and the divine truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ" (Barton).

In the 1870s a group lobbied to have specific Christian principles removed from government. The courts cited Jefferson's letter not to support that removal, but to prove that it was permissible to maintain Christian values, practices and principles in official policy. For the next 15 years during that controversy, the courts used Jefferson's letter to insure that Christian principles remained a part of government.

Jefferson's letter was then largely ignored until 1947, when, in the case of Everson vs. Board of Education, the Supreme Court quoted it. However, the justices quoted only his phrase about separation of church and state, not the context. They wrote: "The first amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable."

This was a new philosophy for the courts. The phrase began to be used repeatedly as an indication of the wishes and intent of the founding fathers. In 1962 the Supreme Court made its first ruling (Engel vs. Vitale) that completely separated Christian principles from public education when it struck down school prayer. The case was over the use of a voluntary, 22-word nondenominational prayer in public schools. The prayer acknowledged God only once, while the Declaration of Independence acknowledges God four times. But somehow this prayer was unconstitutional.

In the 1962 case the court redefined the meaning and application of the word church. Before 1962 the court had defined a church as being an established denomination. Observes David Barton:

"Now the word was redefined to mean any religious activity performed in public. Now the first amendment would not simply prohibit establishing a federal denomination, it would prohibit religious activities in public settings."

School prayer was the first casualty of the new definition. Engel vs. Vitale was the first case in Supreme Court history to cite no court precedents. Within 12 months, in two more cases, the Supreme Court justices removed Bible classes and religious instruction from public schools. In explaining their reasoning, the majority opinion stated: "If portions of the New Testament were read without explanation, they could be . . . psychologically harmful to the child. . ." (Barton). This was the second time in a year that the court had issued a ruling without citing a legal precedent for its decision. No precedent could be found.

The courts have continued to expand the "separation" doctrine over the years. In 1967 the Supreme Court even declared a four-line nursery rhyme unconstitutional in a kindergarten class. Why? Because, though the word God was not mentioned, if someone were to hear the rhyme he might think it was talking about God. So out it went.

Subsequent court rulings have gone as far as to declare it unconstitutional for a copy of the Ten Commandments to hang in a school hallway and for teachers to have a Bible visible on their desks. Increasingly, Americans no longer enjoy freedom of religion; we are saddled with freedom from religion.

Prophecy reveals that the consequences of this new direction will be disastrous. God holds not only individuals but nations accountable for their choices.

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