Our Constitution’s First Amendment, Part 1: Protecting Religious Freedom

Luke 4:18 “The Lord has sent Me… to set at liberty those who are oppressed.”

A little over a week ago, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in the Trinity Lutheran Church versus the State of Missouri that taxpayer-funded grants for playgrounds available to nonprofits under a state program could not be denied to a school run by a church. Calling the majority opinion “radical”, Justice Sonia Sotomayor (one of two dissenting judges) explained how the separation of church and state is now in jeopardy: “The nation’s history guarantees the free exercise of religion without allowing the government to be part of that religious process. The Court today blinds itself to the outcome this history requires and leads us instead to a place where separation of church and state is a constitutional slogan, not a constitutional commitment.”

Mike Whitehead, one of the attorneys for Trinity Lutheran, gave a much different view: “What’s changed for Trinity Lutheran is that they’re no longer discriminated against by the State of Missouri”. The state’s case for denying funds to the church was based on the Blaine Amendment. Originating back in 1875, then President Ulysses S. Grant called for a Constitutional Amendment to prohibit the use of public money for religious schools. He declared that “church and state” should be “forever separate.” The Constitution was never amended to include Grant’s recommendation, but 39 states did adopt this amendment in their laws.

Does our Constitution contain language on separation of church and state? The First Amendment states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. It has two parts: the first is the “establishment clause” (there is to be no government-sanctioned religion for the Unites States) and the second is the “free exercise clause” (government will not prohibit Americans from freedom of worship). These two are foundational to how SCOTUS makes decisions.

So, if our Constitution does not mandate a separation between church and state, why do most Americans think, like Justice Sotomayer, that it does? This concept began from an exchange between newly elected President Thomas Jefferson and the Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut. The Baptists explained that the First Amendment’s ‘free exercise clause’ might be interpreted as government-given rather than God-given, thus allowing government to take away that freedom: “Religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals, that no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious opinions… But sir, our constitution of government is not specific. . . therefore what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the State) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights.”

David Barton (WallBuilders) explained Jefferson’s answer: “He had no intention of allowing the government to limit, restrict, regulate, or interfere with public religious practices. He believed, along with the other Founders, that the First Amendment had been enacted only to prevent the federal establishment of a national denomination. In his reply on January 1, 1802, Jefferson assured them that they need not fear; that the free exercise of religion would never be interfered with by the federal government: ‘Gentlemen, believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God; that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship; that the legislative powers of government reach actions only and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.’”

So there it is – “separation of church and state” is not a “constitutional commitment” – it’s a statement on the God-given right of Americans to worship freely without government intervention, written in a personal, private letter to a specific group of people! As David Barton says, “There is probably no other instance in America’s history where words spoken by a single individual in a private letter… have become the sole authorization for a national policy.” Jefferson intended that his “wall” to separate church and state was a wall that would limit the government’s ability to prohibit or interfere with American’s freedom to worship.

Why did the Founders insist on this? It gets at the heart of our verse this week, where Jesus Christ explains, in His first public Scripture reading, part of His mission for coming to earth – that His Father sent Him to proclaim freedom to those under oppression. The Founders understood His mission was to bring freedom from our sins that have oppressed us, through His sacrificial death on the cross. A freedom that has been paid for by God Himself, that no government provide or take away. A freedom that can be shared openly with no fear of government sanction. Those who know this freedom – are you sharing it with others?

“The Evidence of Faith’s Substance”, Article #250

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