Sunday, October 15, 2006

Exploring the boundaries of church/state separation

I'm posting in advance my topic notes for The Atheist Experience today. Expect them to be a bit scattered, as I'm writing this more as speaking notes than as a carefully planned essay.

Note: I am a new-ish member of Chorus Austin, which will be presenting the Bach B-Minor Mass on November 4. My intention is to play a portion of the music as the intro to the show. Follow the above link if you're interested in tickets. Although this is an overtly religious piece, I think it's a great piece of music.

A few words about Bach

Wikipedia: Johann Sebastian Bach was a member of one of the most extraordinary musical families of all time. For more than 200 years, the Bach family had produced dozens of worthy performers and composers during a period in which the church, local government and the aristocracy provided significant support for professional music making in the German-speaking world, particularly in the eastern electorates of Thuringia and Saxony. Sebastian's father, Johann Ambrosius Bach, was a talented violinist and trumpeter in Eisenach, a town of some 6,000 residents in Thuringia.

Important contributions of the church to history (direct and indirect)

Cathedrals: Talking about one of my favorite novels, Pillars of the Earth. The initial main character, Tom Builder, relies on the church for his livelihood, and his lifelong dream is to build a cathedral.

Wikipedia on Cathedral architecture: The church that has the function of cathedral is not of necessity a large building. It might be as small as the Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. But frequently, the cathedral, along with some of the abbey churches, was the largest building in any region.

There were a number of reasons for this:

  • The cathedral was created to the Glory of God. It was seen as appropriate that it should be as grand and as beautiful as wealth and skill could make it.
  • It functioned as an ecclesiastical meeting-place for many people, not just those of the town in which it stood, but also, on occasions, for the entire region.
  • The cathedral often had its origins in a monastic foundation and was a place of worship for members of a holy order who said the mass privately at a number of small chapels within the cathedral.
  • The cathedral often became a place of worship and burial for wealthy local patrons. These patrons often endowed the cathedrals with money for successive enlargements and building programs.

The Renaissance was an explosion of art, science, and creativity. And where do modern scholars partly pinpoint the origin of the Renaissance? They consider the poet Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) to be the first writer to embody the spirit of the Renaissance.

Protestant Reformation: Luther, taking the revival of the Augustinian notion of salvation by faith alone to new levels, borrowed from the humanists the sense of individualism, that each man can be his own priest (an attitude likely to find popular support considering the rapid rise of an educated urban middle class in the North), and that the only true authority is the Bible, echoing the reformist zeal of the Conciliar movement and opening up the debate once again on limiting the authority of the Pope.

Printing press: Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1447. Wikipedia says: “Gutenberg certainly introduced efficient methods into book production, leading to a boom in the production of texts in Europe — in large part, owing to the popularity of the Gutenberg Bibles, the first mass-produced work, starting on February 23, 1455. Even so, Gutenberg was a poor businessman, and made little money from his printing system.

Art: Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. Da Vinci’s “Last Supper”. Need I say more?

Christianity’s Place in Modern Schools

A really lame joke I heard… A dog had followed his owner to school. His owner was a fourth grader at a public elementary school. When the bell rang, the dog sidled inside the building and made it all the way to the child's classroom with him before a teacher noticed him and shoo'ed him back outside, and closing the door behind him. The dog sat down outside the door, whimpering and staring at the closed doors and not understanding in the least as to why he was refused entry. Then - God appeared beside the dog, patted him on the head to comfort him, and said, "Don't feel bad fella'.... they won't let ME in there either."

My alternate punchline is, "So the dog replies: 'Yes, but I exist.'"

Anne Graham, Billy’s daughter, was interviewed shortly after 9/11. Interviewer Jane Clayson asked her "How could God let something like this happen?" She replied "I believe that God is deeply saddened by this, just as we are, but for years we've been telling God to get out of our schools, to get out of our government and to get out of our lives. And being the gentleman that He is, I believe that He has calmly backed out. How can we expect God to give us His blessing and His protection if we demand that He leave us alone?"

These two comments speak worlds about the evangelical opinion on separation of church and state. They seem to believe that if you are not spending every minute of every day talking about God, then you are performing an act directly hostile to their religion. That would mean that if you teach math, but your lesson plan actually instructs in math and doesn’t mention that math comes from God, then it’s godless math and the school is endorsing atheism.

Religious people often accuse us atheists of trying to completely eradicate God from school and forbidding government officials of expressing any religious beliefs. That is not true. (Ad lib topics: personal prayer vs. school-led prayer; personal statements vs. official government statements; during hours proselytizing vs. after-hours)

The words "Separation of Church & state": no, as fundies love to point out, the words don't appear in the Constitution. The first amendment says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” However, the phrase was apparently coined by Thomas Jefferson, who famously wrote in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists: “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man & his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate 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.”

Jefferson ought to have known what was meant by the First Amendment; it was written by his close friend James Madison, who had earlier worked with him on a Virginia bill that served as a template for the First Amendment. The Bill was called “A BILL FOR ESTABLISHING RELIGIOUS FREEDOM Jefferson’s draft of the bill reads in part: “We, the General Assembly of Virginia, do enact that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief.”

In 1785, Madison wrote letter denouncing “A Bill establishing a provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion”. Madison argued: “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? that the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?”

Throwing some bones to the ACLJ

A few discussion topics -- just because I'm quoting ACLJ doesn't necessarily mean that I agree with them, it just provides some food for thought.

ACLJ on “See you at the pole”

The Supreme Court has consistently upheld the rights of students to express themselves on public school campuses and organize groups to hold events such as See You at the Pole. In 1969, the Supreme Court held in Tinker v. Des Moines that students have the right to speak and express themselves on campus. Then, in the 1990 Mergens case, the Court held that Bible clubs and prayer groups can meet on public secondary school campuses. The case interpreted the Equal Access Act which Congress passed in 1984 to insure that high school students were not discriminated against in the public schools because of their religious beliefs. The Court ruled that public secondary schools that receive federal funds and allow noncurriculum related clubs to meet on campus must also allow Bible clubs to meet on campus during non-instructional time. In this context, Bible clubs should also include prayer groups and events like See You at the Pole. As Justice O’Connor explained, writing for the Court in Mergens, “if a State refused to let religious groups use facilities open to others, then it would demonstrate not neutrality but hostility toward religion.”

ACLJ on school prayer:

As a general principle, teachers retain their First Amendment rights in public schools. The United States Supreme Court has held that "teachers [do not] shed their constitutional rights . . . at the school house gate." Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, 393 U.S. 503, 506 (1969). However, public schools have broad authority to safeguard against Establishment Clause violations. Generally speaking, teachers represent the school when in the classroom or at school-sponsored events and, therefore, should take care to avoid Establishment Clause violations. Peloza v. Capistrano Unified School District, 37 F.3d 517, 522 (9th Cir. 1994), cert. den., 515 U.S. 1173 (1995). The Establishment Clause prohibits a state entity like a public school from endorsing religion or coercing students to participate in religion. Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 (1992). Distilling multiple court decisions, the U.S. Department of Education's guidelines for Religious Expression in Public Schools (issued by Richard W. Riley, U.S. Secretary of Education in August 1995, since then reissued and still in effect) address the position that teachers' and administrators' should take:

Teachers and school administrators, when acting in those capacities, are representatives of the state and are prohibited by the establishment clause from soliciting or encouraging religious activity, and from participating in such activity with students. Teachers and administrators also are prohibited from discouraging activity because of its religious content, and from soliciting or encouraging antireligious activity.

Having said that, however, the Establishment Clause does not prohibit all religious instruction in public schools. "[T]he Bible may constitutionally be used in an appropriate study of history, civilization, ethics, comparative religion, or the like." Stone v. Graham, 449 U.S. 39, 42 (1980) (citing Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 225 (1963)). In fact, the Supreme Court has recognized that it might well be said that one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization." Abington, 374 U.S. at 225 (1963). Please note, however, that school boards or other officials may not be compelled to utilize such curricula. Rather, school officials are given substantial discretion in choosing their own curricula.

Jay Sekulow answering a question about religion in the workplace: “First of all, the workplace is not a religious free zone especially a county agency, which is covered by the First Amendment. There have been a series of cases-we had one of them recently decided by the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit-dealing with religious freedom in the workplace. It applies: A Bible is not a forbidden book or having a mug that has a Scripture reference on it is not illegal; having a personal conversation during your break time about your faith, one on one, is not to be treated as contraband nor is it to be called 'inappropriate conversation'-even if somebody happens to overhear it.”


  1. Russell quotes Jay Sekulow:
    "having a personal conversation during your break time about your faith, one on one, is not to be treated as contraband nor is it to be called 'inappropriate conversation'-even if somebody happens to overhear it.”

    This seems inconsistent with the sexual harrassment jurisprudence that says that other kinds of overheard "inappropriate conversations" are not ok in the workplace. Why do people get a pass when they create a religiously hostile work environment?

  2. I'm pretty sure the eighth circuit ruling that Sekulow cited means that sexual harassment would fall in a different category from discussing religious beliefs.

    I think that religious discussion is not necessarily identical to religious harassment. As an analogy, a coworker could come into your office and say "My daughter is selling girl scout cookies, would you like to buy some?" On the other hand, your boss could come in and say "Buy my daughter's cookies or else you'll never get that promotion!"

    Both are requesting the same action, but one case is clearly workplace harassment and the other is not.


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