Church-state debate season


Between commencements and last week's National Day of Prayer, lawyers have ample opportunities to debate the First Amendment this time of year.

In Indianapolis, U.S. District Judge Sarah Barker said no to student prayers at the Greenwood High School commencement.

In Wisconsin, another U.S. District Court Judge, Barbara Crabb, said no to President Obama's National Day of Prayer. But she let him go ahead so more judges and lawyers can argue about that one farther up the judicial ladder.

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Behind this church-state debate lies a misunderstanding of the First Amendment.

On one side is the assumption that prayer and Bible reading ought to be confined to the private sphere of the home, church, or synagogue. Under this view, more public expressions of faith are unconstitutional because they are divisive and leave other groups feeling offended or left out.

This perspective has some appeal. Parts of the Bible can be offensive and divisive. The document contends that human beings have offended God and need to repent and submit to Him. The Bible also offers wisdom about interpersonal relationships, such as, "Sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness."

The problem isn't the Bible, but finding a foundation of unity for a very diverse society. A divided Supreme Court has failed in its 60-year attempt to find that harmony by pushing the Bible and prayer to the far corners of the public sphere.

The rulings over school prayer or Bible verses on government property have only sparked more lawsuits. School officials can hardly plan a holiday program or a graduation ceremony without calling a lawyer.

Eventually the Supreme Court will have to go back to the history books to resolve this debate. The authors of the First Amendment never intended to sweep religious expression out of the public sphere. The First Amendment says that Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The intent was to maximize freedom and avoid the kind of state church characteristic of England and other European countries.

When they were working on this clause, the Founding Fathers also prayed together and quoted the Bible as they deliberated over the proposed Constitution. They put a Bible verse on the Liberty Bell. They paid for a chaplain for Congress, and sessions of Congress were opened in prayer.

They saw the Bible as the foundation for freedom, not a hindrance to liberty.

Since World War II, some groups have sought a religious cleansing of the public square.

The courts can go along with this campaign only by turning the original intent of the First Amendment on its head. When they do, they diminish respect for the courts. The Constitution only becomes whatever the judges decide, without regard for the original intent of the Founding Fathers.

The more appropriate approach to these lawsuits is to recommend an amendment to the Constitution. It could say something like: Religious expression has no place in official government proceedings or in the public square. But the Founding Fathers would likely have voted no on that amendment.

Russ Pulliam
Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of God's World Publications' board of directors.


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