Thomas Jefferson vs. Clebe McClary. Who will emerge victorious?

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation has for an injunction to block Clebe McClary from speaking at the Marine academy prayer luncheon.  This has prompted another shit storm of controversy about what role religion should be able to play in the public sphere and over the interpretation of the constitutional rules regarding this divisive issue.

So, Is Clebe McClary’s speaking engagement at the Marine academy prayer luncheon unconstitutional?  This is not a simple question, and to answer it we really need a history lesson.  Many people in favor of McClary’s right to speak have been intoning that old canard that the phrase “separation of church and state” is not in the constitution.  Of course they are technically correct which, as I shall attempt to show, is a very long way from actually being correct.

The exact phrase used in the first amendment is, “congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” First, I very rarely hear people make the argument that since the amendment only mentions congress that all other parts of government, particularly the state governments are able to ignore this rule.  However, the Due Process and Equal protection clauses in the fourteenth amendment passed in 1868 have consistently been cited in rulings by courts to extend most of the regulations in the bill of rights (the first ten amendments) to extend to states.

Second, while the phrase “separation of church and state” do not appear in the U.S. Constitution, it does appear in a letter penned by then president Thomas Jefferson in 1802 to the Danbury Baptist association.  In this letter he makes the following statement:

I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.

 The entire letter is posted in the library of congress.

Many people have argued that Jefferson’s statement, and the establishment clause in the 1st amendment which he references is only meant as a one way wall, preventing the state from injecting itself into religion but not preventing the reverse.  Such a position requires that one completely ignores the historical context in which both the 1st amendment and Jefferson’s letter were written in.  The Danbury Baptist association, to which Jefferson’s letter addressed, was only being persecuted by Connecticut’s government in a very technical sense.  That is to say, the government of Connecticut had been taken over by a group of Christians which were theologically Calvinist.  This group was using the government to engage in the persecution of non-Calvinist people living in that state, including an extra tax that non-Calvinists were required to pay.  Baptist groups, which believed in free will, were at the top of that list.  The issue Danbury Baptist was having was not that the government was persecuting them, but that another religious group used the government as a vehicle for their abuse.  This is exactly what the first amendment was meant to prevent, and exactly what Jefferson was speaking about.

The odd thing is that Calvinists had not fared better in Europe, one of the primary reasons Calvinists had come to the colonies in the first place was to escape persecution by the English government which was connected with the Church of England.  Indeed this sort of escape from persecution for religious or political beliefs was quite common among many of the groups who had moved to the Americas during the early period of colonization.

The idea I am trying to get across here is that to make the “wall of separation between Church and State” only work in one direction would essentially make it work in neither direction.  To allow people to inject their religious beliefs into politics will always result in the state taking actions that interfere with religious freedom.

McClary clearly has a particular religious view that not every citizen, or Marine for that matter, shares, and a rather sectarian view at that, but no matter who speaks some people will not agree with their theology.  The real question I have is not whether this particular person should have the right to speak at the Marine’s prayer luncheon, but why the Marines are having a prayer luncheon in the first place?

As long as religion is allowed an official place in state institutions, and politics, the first amendment is effectively being ignored, and issues like the one that the Danbury Baptist association was forced to endure will continue to occur.  Only time will tell whether or not people will heed the lessons our countries founding fathers learned, or if those who wish to circumvent the establishment clause will need to relearn the folly of merging religious belief with government the hard way…at our expense.

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