The Establishment Clause – Overturned

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Political Philosophy

In 2003, a Houston, Texas real-estate-agent-turned-attorney by the name of Kay Staley successfully sued Harris County to have a Bible, which had been on display for decades in front of the courthouse, removed on claims of unconstitutionality, per the “Establishment Clause” of the First Amendment.

Staley is now on a new mission. The Houston City Council opens its regular meetings with a short prayer. Sometimes members of the public are invited to pray, and other times the council members themselves do the bidding. Ms. Staley apparently took so much offense at the Lord’s Prayer, uttered by councilwoman Anne Clutterbuck, that she decided a new lawsuit was in proper order.

This isn’t new. We’ve been hearing about suits like this all over the nation, ever since Madalyn Murray O’Hair tried to sue the Federal Government because NASA read from the Book of Genesis as Apollo 8 orbited the moon in 1968. 

The argument goes a little like this: 

The American Founders believed in the Separation of Church and State, and religious freedom, so they wrote the First Amendment to erect a “strict wall of separation” to restrict Government and Religion to their own appropriate spheres. Therefore, no government official or institution should endorse or promote a religious point of view. 

This opinion seems to be the widely accepted meaning of the “Establishment Clause.” The only problem with it is that it is completely and absolutely wrong. Right away we should clarify that “Separation of Church and State” is nowhere to be found in the Constitution or any Amendment. The phrase is quoted from one of Thomas Jefferson’s personal letters. But there is a much stronger argument against this ridiculous notion. Let’s go to the actual words (novel idea):

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; …”

For the sake of brevity I dropped the irrelevant parts – we’re just focusing on the religion segment. It’s important when reading the Constitution to keep in mind that it essentially an agreement between states over what kind of power the new Federal government would have. These were individual states that were very uneasy about giving up their sovereignty, but knew that it was necessary for stability. So the “Congress” referred to in the First Amendment is the 535 men and women currently working in the U.S. House and Senate.

So what can’t they do? It says here they “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” and also that they shall make no law “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion. Go ahead, read it again if you’d like. It’s quite clear. There is nothing that says government can’t reference, endorse or even blatantly promote religion, it just cannot do so through law.

The “Establishment Clause” that is repeatedly used to silence religious expression in government and just about every other public venue outside of church is actually supposed to do just the opposite. There can be no doubt that Ms. Staley is attempting to use the fist of law against Ms. Clutterbuck to “prohibit the free exercise” of her religion. Does the Amendment make any exceptions for public officials? Are we to believe that freedom to exercise one’s religion stops at the doorway of the court room or the council chamber?

We are free people, and unless my understanding is flawed these United States form a government of the people, by the people and for the people. If our personal convictions call us to embrace the full implications of our faith, then we should do so in our homes, in our cars, on the job and anywhere else we may end up – perhaps most importantly when we are summoned to the responsibility of public service and the solemn authority it entrusts us with.

The majority of Americans in the late 1700’s, including many of our founders, were Christians who believed that religion was important in society, and certainly in governance, and that is still the case today.  But if we remain silent, ceding defeat to a minority voice that seeks to establish a public religion of secularism, we will slowly lose the right to free religious expression – a freedom so valuable to our ancestors that they addressed it in the very first sentence of our Bill of Rights.

Here’s to hoping you remember this blog next month when you purchase your Holiday Tree.

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