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.
Forty-one years later, the U.S. Supreme Court in Epperson v. Arkansas (1968) invalidated a 1928 Arkansas statute that prohibited the teaching of evolution. The Court held the statute to be an unconstitutional attempt to advance a particular religions viewpoint. 

In a landmark ruling in 1987, Edwards v. Aguillard, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the State of Louisiana’s Creationism Act was unconstitutional. This statute prohibited the teaching of evolution in public schools, except when it was accompanied by instruction in “creation science.” The Court found that, by advancing the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind, which is embraced by the term “creation science,” the act impermissibly endorsed a particular religious viewpoint. The Court also found that the provision of a comprehensive science education is undermined when it is forbidden to teach evolution except when creation science is also taught. 

Some creationists responded to this decision by refashioning “creation science” to avoid any explicit reference to the Bible, to God, or to the beliefs of a particular sect. This version of creationism re-emerged as part of the ‘intelligent design” movement in the 1990’s. In the case of Kitzmiller v. Dover School District (2005) that was tried in Harrisburg, PA, Federal District Court, “intelligent design” was found to be a form of creationism, and therefore, unconstitutional to teach in American public schools. The case presented expert testimony over six weeks and was the subject of national media attention.

Despite all the decisions indicated above regarding separation of church and state in public education, the Texas Public School System now requires that a high school elective course on the literature of the Bible and history of that era be taught in all schools. House Bill No. 1287 also indicates that schools can add courses on other religious texts, but only the one on the Bible is required. The Texas legislature will no doubt attempt to claim that this course is secular and aimed at educating students on the importance that the Bible has had on history, civilization, or ethics. In any case, a lawsuit is likely imminent.

If the importance of the First Amendment and Article VI in defending individual freedoms and the course of our country’s progress is of major significance to you, it is incumbent on you to support those candidates who are committed to the principle of separation of church and state. If you don’t want the Supreme Court to fall into the hands of Creationists and worse, vote for President Obama. He is the only major party candidate who understands the Constitution and the importance of legal precedence. It is highly probable that a Romney appointed Supreme Court will ignore these factors and throw open the doors to Creationism becoming the dominant curriculum in our schools.