Tuesday, April 05, 2005

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (Abridged):
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."

And thanks to the 14th Amendment, it applies to state and local governments every bit as much as to Congress. People often reduce it to the principle apparently contained in it: "separation of church and state."

But in class today - Freedom and the First Amendment, which basically spends the semester dissecting that sentence and all the judicial disputes and decisions that depend on it - I got to wondering something. What if that separation is damaged, but not by any act of government? Take a case we discussed for this week, about a religious youth group meeting on school grounds right after the school day is over. On the one hand, that school was used as a public forum open to anyone who met some basic requirements, so discriminating against the Good News Club by not letting them use it would pretty obviously be a violation of the Free Exercise Clause. But on the other hand - it's a religious group meeting in a classroom, just minutes after the school day ends, involving big chunks of classes. In the minds of the eight and 10-year-olds involved, it would look one Hell of a lot like the Bible study group was just another part, a natural extension of the normal school activities, right? Maybe even like being an observant Christian was required (by peer pressure if nothing else) as part of being in the class? That sure looks like establishment of religion to them. And the appearance of establishment of religion, an implicit endorsement, has been considered on a par with an explicit, intentional endorsement or establishment in some cases.

The Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to deny the Good News Club the classroom space on that Free Exercise thing. But it really seems like a case for the Establishment Clause, even though the guilty party isn't the government. The Constitution is pretty clear in that it only forbids establishment by the government, but is establishment by someone else - by a private citizen/religious group tying itself to government instead of the other way around - any better? More legal, obviously, but more ethical? Does it stick to the letter of the law but shatter its spirit?

Is the separation of church and state just a legal requirement like speeding or Robert's Rules of Order (on a much larger scale, of course), or is it also a moral imperative? Should people make a good faith (no pun intended) effort to keep politics and religion separate, or is that between them, the judges, and the Judge? (Word games are just jumping out at me. I can't help myself.)

1 comment:

Ophelia said...

We went over the same case the first week of Theories last year. I think you also have to look at what the establishment clause is trying to prevent.
This type of argument makes me drool. ;)