Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Some civics & history points in the appendix to a judicial ruling in TX

In the second (!) appendix to a judicial ruling about school prayer in a Texas public school, Judge Biery writes - quite succinctly - about the problems of allowing government association with religion and why we have a separation of "Church and State". It starts - on page 3 of Appendix II - with a section titled "Diversity of Homo Sapien [sic] Religious and Life After Death Beliefs". Following the standard of written judgments, there are plenty of footnotes that pepper the document, and by page seven - and the title "The American Colonial Religious Experience" the document racked up 23 footnotes.

To present the reason why the United States ultimately resolved to separate itself from religion, Judge Biery's statement makes the following observations of history:
The Alsatians who immigrated to the Medina Valley [where the ruling of the case took place] were neither the first nor the last group to come to America in search of freedom from government controlled religion. Before them came the Pilgrims persecuted by the government-controlled Church of England, the French Protestant Huguenots persecuted by the French Catholic government of Louis XIV, and the European Jews persecuted by European Christian governments.

They voted with their feet for separation of church and state by coming to the new world. But old practices die hard, and the American colonists themselves established official government religions. For instance, the Rhode Island Charter of 1663 promised to "preserve unto [its inhabitants] that liberty in the true Christian faith and worship of God." Other Rhode Island laws restricted admission to the colony to those professing the Christian religion. Similar laws existed in Massachusetts and New York. In Virginia in 1776, although it was declared "all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience," it was also declared that "it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other." In Maryland, which was originally settled as a safe haven for Catholics, a Protestant majority became dominant and persecuted and marginalized Catholic residents. Seventh-Day Adventists were similarly persecuted by the majority for their beliefs." (pp 7, 8)
In short, people left Europe because of the problems of Church being combined with the state, but they set up similar forms of church-state interactions in the new world, resulting in state-justified persecutions that were analogous to the ones they left Europe over in the first place. Judge Beiry continues, in the section "Government and Religion Joining Hands":
If government-run public schools also joined hands with religion and had the power to impose religious views, questions arise: Which holy books and prayers would be preferred? The Torah? The Book of Mormon? The Catholic Bible? The New Testament? The Bible as edited by Thomas Jefferson? The Koran? Would Christians be required to face Mecca or observe Hebrew prayer? Would Jews and Muslims be obligated to stand and recite the Lord's Prayer? (p 9)
It's questions like these that I think that many people who want to increase government associations with religion don't ask themselves. Which religion? How much religion? How much coersion?
By page 12, Judge Beiry starts with the civics lesson:
The Constitution invokes, and is based upon, the people as having ultimate sovereignty and power over the three branches of government through the electoral and amendment processes vested in them. That power, for example, has been exercised to allow women to vote, to prohibit, and then allow, liquor and to limit the President of the United States to two terms.

The people could exercise that same power to amend the Constitution to favor a particular religion, to turn the United States into a religious state such as Israel or Iran or to suppress religion as in the Soviet Union, China or Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.

Thus far, that power has not been exercised in such a manner, and this Court's obligation is to follow the Constitution as written, as intended by the Framers and as interpreted by the Supreme Court of the United States.
In other words, if people DID want to have a religious government, there is a mechanism to do it: the amendment process. However, the Supreme Court - not political pundits - is there to interpret the Constitution. Indeed, Judge Beiry's commentary under the section "Original Intent of the Framers of the United States Constitution" is pretty boiler-plate stuff (unless you happen to buy in to the false notion that Christianity is a fundamental part of the Constitution - that just happened to be left out of it completely):
Reasonable minds differ on the Constitution as a living, evolving document or one to be interpreted strictly as the Framers originally intended. Some issues not foreseen by the leaders of an agrarian slave holding nation do not lend themselves to providing insight into the intent of those authors. (p 13)
I like that he pointed this out. The Framers lived in the world of 230+ years ago. It was a world in which Joseph Priestly had just discovered - in 1774 - that the atmosphere is made up of stuff, and that oxygen is what allows stuff to burn (although it wasn't until 1777 that it was called "oxygen"). It was a world in which manned flight of any sort wasn't yet around (the famous French demonstration of humans in a hot air balloon wasn't to happen until 1783). It was only a few years after Edward Jenner successfully used his smallpox vaccine idea to stop an outbreak in England (but still about two decades before the idea of vaccination would catch on in the medical world). And the list goes on. In other words, the world of the late 18th Century was a completely different world than the one we live in today. (It's even completely different from the world of the most observant Amish!) Therefore, as Judge Beiry notes, it's not inconceivable that some things aren't going to be covered directly by the Constitution nor by the correspondence and literature written by the Founders.

However, religion ain't one of them:
Religion though and its relationship to government was one on which the Founders did speak clearly. Having witnessed and learned from the bloodshed and persecution of European church-state partnerships the Founders wrote [the First Amendment].
Judge Beiry also provides James Madison's written and expressed intent behind those words, Thomas Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptist Association (1802) and personal correspondence in 1822, John Adams' 1817 letter to Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin's perspectives from 1780, and Thomas Paine's statements of the time. (See pp 13-15.) They are all of the opinion that they did NOT want a country that mimicked the church-state relationship that was seen in the very country that they had just fought a bloody war against; one that was ruled (titularly) by a king, who was given divine authority by God, and which had - not even 100 years previously - been rocked by a civil war that had been - in part - due to church-state issues.
The last three pages of Appendix II fleshes out the point Judge Beiry made about Supreme Court interpretation of the Founders' intent, and it starts with the first decision made - in 1890 Wisconsin - about the promotion of particular religious viewpoints in public schools, which found:
The priceless truths of the Bible are best taught to our youth in the church, the Sabbath and parochial schools, the social religious meetings, and, above all, by parents in the home circle. There, these truths may be explained and enforced, the spiritual welfare of the child guarded and protected, and his spiritual nature directed and cultivated, in accordance with the dictates of the parental conscience. The constitution does not interfere with such teaching and culture. It only banishes theological polemics from the district schools. It does this, not because of any hostility to religion, but because the people who adopted it believed that the public good would thereby be promoted, and they so declared in the preamble. Religion teaches obedience to law, and flourishes best where good government prevails. The constitutional prohibition was adopted in the interests of good government; and it argues but little faith in the vitality and power of religion to predict disaster to its progress because a constitutional provision, enacted for such a purpose, is faithfully executed.
This isn't a communist or socialist plot. (Heck, Marx's Communist Manifesto had only been published in English - in England - in 1888.) It was, instead, a decision based in an American context, predating - one can safely surmise - any sort of "Red Scare". It sought to limit - in plain language - government endorsement of religion in schools, because religious teaching was not the function of the government.

Appendix II can be found here.
The commentary on this case (and of the appendix comments by Judge Beiry) is from Dispatches from the Culture Wars.

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