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Church and State: Where is the Line of Separation?


With the swearing in of Samuel Alito, Jr. to the Supreme Court of the United States, some observers say the nation's highest court may decide many cases from a conservative viewpoint, particularly cases involving religion. Many religious conservatives want to preserve Christianity in American public life, but others are concerned about safeguarding the principle of the separation of church and state.

It all began in 1947. Proposals were pending in the U.S. Congress to extend state aid to religious schools, while the Supreme Court was preparing to rule in its first major case on the separation of church and state, involving a local school district and a private Catholic school.

Phillip Vincent Munoz is Professor of Constitutional Law and Church-State Law at Tufts University in Massachusetts. He says, "Smith Everson vs. Board of Education involved a very obscure issue of the state district in New Jersey paying the transportation for kids going to a Catholic school. And the big deal was that for the first time, the Supreme Court of the United States said the First Amendment establishment clause erects a wall of separation between church and state. And ever since 1947, there's been just a raging debate in America on what exactly does the wall separate."

For many Christian activists, the Supreme Court ruling against the school district sparked an all out assault against religion in American schools and public life. In the early 1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down landmark rulings striking down government-sponsored prayer and Bible reading in public schools. In 1980, some federal courts banned the posting of the Ten Commandments in schools. Five years later, a law prohibited a moment of silence in schools. In 1989, the displaying of nativity scenes in government buildings was banned. In 1992, prayers at high school ceremonies were deemed unlawful.

Culture War

But advocates of individual freedom argue that putting a distance between church and state allows even greater religious freedom. Robert Boston of the Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington says that every belief should be respected. He says, "What we are seeing today is, I think, in part a reaction to expanding religious pluralism. There was a time in the country when the rights of non-Christians weren't even respected. We are still majority Christian, but we are seeing increasing numbers of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and non-believers. The only way that we all will be able to live together is for the government to stay neutral on these religious questions and not pressure anyone to take part in religion against their will."

The Ten Commandments

At the center of some of the fiercest legal battles over church-state separation are monuments to the Ten Commandments in public places. It is little known that the spread of these monuments began with the 1956 Cecil DeMille Biblical film epic "The Ten Commandments." DeMille launched a campaign to promote the movie by erecting granite monuments to the Ten Commandments across America.

At the time, few questioned their presence on public property. But in the 1970s, cases came before the courts questioning their constitutionality. Christian activists suffered a string of losses in the courts. But in the early 1990s, Christian of legal activists found new grounds for fighting for more protection of religious rights in the free speech clause of the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has yet to have the final say in the dispute over displaying the Ten Commandments.

William Donohue of The Heritage Foundation in Washington says Christian activists have made significant headway fighting what he calls "secularist organizations."

Mr. Donohue contends, "The American Civil Liberties Union is willing to go to court to protect the right of a student to have an obscenity on his T-shirt, but they are also willing to go to court to sue a student if he had a religious message on his T-shirt. The question is this: if the freedom of speech is the general rule, why then do we take exception if the message is religious, but we don't even if it is obscene? "

Pledge of Allegiance

The final battleground for the separation of church and state is the Supreme Court, which will soon have to decide the constitutionality of the pledge of allegiance in public schools.

In 2000, an atheist physician sued a school district in California, saying that a teacher-led pledge of allegiance violated his child's religious liberty. The lower courts ruled that the phrase "one Nation under God" in the pledge as recited in public schools was unconstitutional. The case went to the Supreme Court on appeal. In 2004, the high court said the case did not have standing because the daughter did not live with her father. But now, a group of parents in California have filed another suit. So the phrase "under God" may be now on its way back to the Supreme Court.

Marcia Hamilton is professor of constitutional law at Yeshiva University in New York and author of the book: God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law. She says religion and society often work at cross-purposes, which was not the intention of the Framers of the U.S. Constitution.

Professor Hamilton says, "We are definitely in a battle right now. One side argues that the separation of church and state is the wrong way to think about it, that the establishment clause is about government suppressing religion. The other side argues that, no, the establishment clause is really about finding the right balance between two centers of power in the society."

Professor Hamilton adds that the separation of church and state is so important to American public life that it will be preserved. Most observers also contend that Americans, of whom a vast majority believes in God, remain exactly where Thomas Jefferson said they were in 1802. They want religion safeguarded, but not to have it forced upon anyone.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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