Last week, the United States Supreme Court awarded Americans an important victory for religious freedom. In Carson v. Makin, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that “to exclude religious persons from the enjoyment of public benefits on the basis of their anticipated religious use of [those] benefits” is a violation of the First Amendment. “The protesting interest of the State[s]he said, “do not justify laws that exclude some members of the community from an otherwise generally available public good because of their religious exercise.”
Judge Sonia Sotomayor disagreed. “Today the court leads us to a place… of [dismantling] the wall of separation between Church and State that the Framers fought to build,” she lamented.
But what is this “wall” that Judge Sotomayor makes fun of? Where is he from? What is its context? And why was it considered important for the framers of our country?
Perhaps a timeline would help answer these questions.
In 1776, Thomas Jefferson laid the cornerstone of our constitutional republic, and on that stone engraved these words: 1) We are created; 2) We are equal; and 3) We are endowed by God – not the government – with certain inalienable rights; and foremost among them are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Thus, Jefferson stated unequivocally that America’s independence rested on a “religious” understanding of mankind’s origins, priorities, and purpose.
In 1791, James Madison wrote the First Amendment, stating, “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of any religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. In writing these words, Madison demonstrated two fundamental things. First, he knew that the pursuit of happiness, meaning meaning and purpose, was the business of the Church and its parishioners and not the business of the king or the courts. Second, he understood that Congress was the protector of that right, not its ancestor.
Madison’s argument was simple: government should never pretend to define the affairs of the Church. Congress has no authority to “establish”, dictate, prescribe, or contradict any religious belief. Additionally, and equally important, Madison clarifies that no governing body can ordain or prohibit how a citizen “expresses” his or her faith. In other words, religion is not just a side issue of our private thoughts, but rather something that all worshipers experience daily in the marketplace of life. In short, the government should leave the Church alone. He should never pretend to tell people what to believe or how they can or cannot practice their faith.
Eleven years later, at the start of his presidency, Mr. Jefferson found it necessary to reassure a small group of Christians at Danbury Baptist Church that they need not fear government intrusion: “ I contemplate with (the greatest) reverence,” he said, “that act… which declared that [the] the legislator should not “make any law respecting the establishment of a religion or prohibiting the free exercise”, thus building a wall of separation between Church and State”.
Mr. Jefferson’s message was unequivocal: There is a wall that protects the Church from the State, and no government aligned with our Constitution can break through that wall.
However, this wall is not erected as a prison but as a fortress. It exists to protect the Church, not to confine it. Mr. Jefferson no more wanted this wall to hold the Church back than he wanted the walls of his own house to hold him. As a house has a door through which you come and go, buy and sell, engage culture, and do your civic duty, so Jefferson’s wall has a door through which the Church enters society to do its good work. The key here is that the Church holds the key, and the door is locked from the inside, not from the outside. Mr. Jefferson was making it clear to those concerned in Danbury, Conn., that this wall separating church and state was built for the benefit of the church, not the government.
The leaders of our founding era to whom Justice Sotomayor refers never intended our nation to be secular or hostile to religion. In fact, a number of them, in addition to Mr. Jefferson, have made that very clear.
John Adams said, “Our Constitution is made for a moral and religious people only and is utterly inadequate for the government of any other. In signing the Northwest Ordinance, George Washington declared that “religion and morality” are “necessary to good government”. James McHenry wrote: “The Holy Scriptures… alone can secure to society order and peace, and to our courts of justice and our constitutions of government purity, stability and utility. Alexis de Tocqueville later agreed: “Freedom cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.”
Perhaps the good judge Sotomayor would do well to refresh her reading of The Framers she now claims to boast. The list of those who have understood that the main guardian of our constitutional freedoms is the wall of our biblical faith is almost endless.
• Everett Piper (dreverettpiper.com, @dreverettpiper), columnist for The Washington Times, is a former college president and radio host. He is the author of “Not a Daycare: The Devastating Consequences of Abandoning the Truth” (Regnery).