Snap Fact #357
GLOVES OFF: President Obama Understands the Constitution: While Republicans Attack the Separation of Church and State
One of the basic tenets of our democracy lies in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Thomas Jefferson used the phrase “separation of church and state” to express an understanding of the intent and function of the Establishment Clause and Free Excise Clause of the First Amendment.
Specifically, the First Amendment provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” and Article VI specifies that ‘no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” The First Amendment and Article VI provide for a wholly secular government with a “wall of separation between church and state.” Unless one wishes to rewrite history, this is pretty clear, and the President understands it.
The significance of the separation of church and state lies in the equality it provides each citizen against discrimination for ones religious beliefs or non-beliefs. In the United States of America, members of minority religions, agnostics, and atheists are free to pursue their beliefs without prejudice. Unfortunately, groups such as the Religious Right with the help of the Republican Party have been trying to breach the wall of separation.
In the Republican Platform of 2012, there is a pledge to support the right of students to engage in prayer at public school events in public schools. Fifty years ago, the Supreme Court addressed the issue of officially sponsored prayer or religious recitations in public schools. In Engle v. Vitale (1962), the Court, by a vote of 6-1, determined it unconstitutional for state officials to compose an official school prayer and require its recitations in public schools, even when the prayer is non-denominational and students may excuse themselves from participation. The Court noted that it is a matter of history that this very practice of establishing governmentally composed prayers for religious services was one of the reasons which caused many of our early colonists to leave England and seek religious freedom in America. Yet, as plainspoken as the Court was in its decision, today’s Republican Party still seeks to erode the essence of separation of church and state.
One of the more egregious examples of attempting to breach the “wall of separation” concerns the battle on teaching evolution. After the publication of On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin in 1859, the idea that life as we know it had evolved was an active source of academic debate centered on the philosophical, social, and religious implications of evolution. Today, evolution is generally accepted by greater than 99.5% of scientists with relevant expertise.
With the development of the theory of evolution, public schools began to teach science that was considered by some to be at odds with the Bible. In reaction, several states prohibited the teaching of evolution. In Tennessee, this led to the conviction of John T. Scopes in 1925 for teaching evolution in his secondary school biology class. In 1927, the case was appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court who overturned it on a technicality, but the Court held that the ban on teaching of evolution did not violate the Establishment Clause.