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National Security: Religious Liberty

Joe Boyles: Guest Columnist

Our country was founded on the principles of religious liberty.  In the early 17th Century, Europeans who feared religious repression in their homeland looked across the Atlantic for a new opportunity to found a nation where they could worship God in their own choosing rather than how the state or their king demanded.  The new land they founded on the eastern seaboard was dedicated to that liberty.

My own family is an example.  Between 1636 and 1642, one-third of the village of Hingham in Norfolk, England fled the old world and braved an ocean voyage aboard leaky sailing ships and the uncertain future of a harsh new land to escape religious repression and the resulting English Civil War.  In 1638, the good ship Diligent carried one hundred people making this exodus, among them the five members of the Henry Chamberlin family.

After two months at sea, the Diligent arrived in the waters off the coast of Massachusetts and off-loaded their human cargo and supplies.  The voyagers formed a town in the new world they named Hingham after their home in the old world.  The Chamberlin family was among them.  My maternal grandmother, June Chamberlin Holdren, was a direct descendent of Henry Chamberlin.  Another Hingham voyager was the great-great grandfather of Abraham Lincoln.  From humble beginnings, great things can happen.

There are countless other examples of people fleeing religious persecution and beginning a new life in the new world.  In the latter part of the 18th Century, our founding fathers had religious liberty foremost on their mind as they sought to create a new nation.  In 1787, our namesake James Madison called a Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.  The original Constitution only mentions religion in one place, Article VI where it states, “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

At the urging of his mentor Thomas Jefferson (at this time, Jefferson was in France serving as our ambassador), Madison crafted a Bill of Rights to protect individual citizens from the heavy hand of an overbearing government. These became the first ten amendments to the Constitution and were ratified by the states two years later.    

The First Amendment begins this way: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  The first clause is referred to as the Establishment Clause while the second is the Free Exercise Clause.  The intent of our founders was that we would not have a state religion; and secondly, every citizen would be permitted the right to follow his or her own religious instincts.

Several centuries later it seems, we have lost that perspective.  The religious freedom that our ancestors fought so desperately to preserve is under attack in the 21st Century.  The Establishment Clause is now interpreted as ‘no public pronouncement of religion is permitted in the public square.’  By deferring to the first interpretation, the second clause is ignored and all too frequently, violated.

There is a popular notion that the Constitution says that ‘church and state’ must be separated.  The document says no such thing.  Those words come from a letter from President Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury (Connecticut) Baptists.  A century and a half later, the Supreme Court codified the concept in their 1962 Engel vs. Vitale decision which said that New York could not have a state approved prayer to be read in every public school.

For more than a half century, the secularists working through the courts and bureaucracies have expanded that ruling to the point where the law and popular culture ridicules and restricts those of us who practice our religion.  Yet, the Great Commission at the end of the Gospel of Matthew exhorts Christians to go into the world spreading the message of Jesus Christ.  Here is a case where church and state are in conflict, pulling in opposite directions.

The recent Trinity Lutheran decision by the current court is landmark in that it reverses the trend of absolute and expanding separation.  Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Missouri applied for a grant to improve the surface of their playground and prevent injuries to children.  Their application was denied because the government agency felt that by providing the funds to improve the playground that would be tantamount to endorsing Lutheranism and a violation of the First Amendment.  In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court reversed the ruling and allowed the grant application to proceed.  It is a reasonable decision; and ultimately, the children of all faiths who enjoy that playground will benefit.

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