Jeanette Strong: Separation of church and state


“The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries.” James Madison, 1803 letter.

James Madison, fourth president of the United States, has been called the “Father of the Constitution” because of his crucial role in writing the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. If anyone understood what the Constitution was about, it was Madison.

He knew the importance of keeping church and state separate. This doesn’t mean a person’s faith shouldn’t affect their political decisions. It does mean that religious organizations shouldn’t be dictating policy to political bodies.

This principle was confirmed by our third president, Thomas Jefferson, in an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut. In this letter, Jefferson declared, “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, & 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 & State.”

Our founders understood that basing public policy on personal religious beliefs was extremely dangerous. Sadly, many Americans seem to have forgotten this founding principle.

On June 26, Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., said, “The church is supposed to direct the government. The government is not supposed to direct the church. That is not how our Founding Fathers intended it. I’m tired of this separation of church and state junk that’s not in the Constitution. It was in a stinking letter, and it means nothing like what they say it does.”

I don’t know how much history Boebert has studied, but it’s clear she has little understanding of the Constitution itself. If this ranting was limited to her, we could ignore it, but these ideas extend beyond her and her followers.

The U.S. Supreme Court has begun issuing rulings based not on law, but on their personal religious beliefs. Now, rights Americans have enjoyed for decades are in danger, with the country taking a very dark turn.
After voting to overturn Roe v. Wade, the law protecting a woman’s right to abortion, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote, “In future cases, we should reconsider all of this Court’s substantive due process precedents, including Griswold, Lawrence, and Obergefell.”

For those who don’t remember, Griswold was the 1965 case that made buying contraceptives legal for married couples, a right extended to unmarried couples in 1972. The 2003 Lawrence decision ruled that sexual acts between consenting adults were legal. Obergefell made gay marriage legal in 2015.

Objections to these rulings are not based on law or common sense but on narrow religious beliefs, which is exactly what the founders wanted to prevent. A ruling Thomas didn’t mention was Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 ruling that made interracial marriage legal. Before that, in several states, mixed race marriages were illegal. Since Thomas is in a mixed race marriage, he probably wouldn’t like to see that law reinstated, but if these other rulings are overturned, Loving won’t be far behind.

In an even more ominous turn of events, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, tweeted on June 25 that the Supreme Court should reconsider Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 ruling that said “Separate but equal” was Constitutional, enshrining legal segregation. In 1954, the Supreme Court overturned Plessey in the decision on Brown v. Board of Education, opening the way for desegregation across the country. Cornyn seemed to be implying that legal segregation should be reinstated.

In response to these rulings and comments, the hash tag #Not Christianity is trending on Twitter. People such as Boebert apparently believe denying people their rights fulfills Jesus’ teachings. Those who read the Gospels know Jesus actually taught love and acceptance. (Matthew 22:36-40, Mark 12:31, Luke 6:27, 31)

The beautiful thing about America is that we can disagree about this. The terrifying thing is that if this Supreme Court keeps ruling the way it has, that freedom may soon disappear.

James Madison and Thomas Jefferson would be ashamed of what their daring experiment in liberty and justice is turning into. Those of us who don’t want to live in a Taliban-type country, under Sharia-type law, need to make sure that doesn’t happen, while we still can.

Jeanette Strong, whose column appears every other week, is a Nevada Press Association award-winning columnist. She may be reached at news@lahontanvalleynews.com.

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