America is the land of contradiction. For example, we are the most health conscious nation on earth. “Natural” and “organic” grocery stores are sprouting up (pun intended) like weeds on a lawn in August. Infomercials tout a new exercise device every week. Yet, we are a nation with more obese people than any other place on earth.
Another example is our religious background. Statistically, we are the most church-going nation on earth, certainly of all the first world countries. Per capita, more people in the United States go to church than in western Europe, where the roots of Christianity, Catholicism and Protestantism, developed. Yet we have a Constitution, the document which announces the basic themes of our government and of our identity as Americans which, at least according to some, stands for the proposition of separation of church and state. In that document, the framers attempted to avoid the sins of European society from which they came. In the U.S., you were not to be born into a national church, and we were to have no royalty announce that He was the spokesman for the Church (or that He was the Sun King).
The Constitution, in the First Amendment ratified in 1791, says only that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech,…” Since 1791, people have argued repeatedly-and vigorously-on all sides of the issues over what the First Amendment means. James Madison, one of our founding fathers, once observed “that [religious] devotion of the people has been manifestly increased by the total separation of the church from the state.”
More recently, in 1940, the United States Supreme Court applied the free-exercise clause to state and local law for the first time, and established a heightened level of scrutiny for application of the free-exercise clause. In 1992, Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun in Lee v. Weisman said: “When a government puts its imprimatur on a particular religion it conveys a message of exclusion to all those who do not adhere to the favored beliefs. A government cannot be premised on the belief that all persons are created equal when it asserts that God prefers some.”
This year, Judge Roy Moore, the Chief Judge of the Alabama Supreme Court, erected a monument to the Ten Commandments in a government building. Private money purchased the monument. Judge Moore said in defense of the monument: “It is required that this nation acknowledge God’s law as its foundation, because both the Constitution and Bill of Rights enshrine those principles.” After all, we do have in our national pledge of allegiance the words “one nation under God”. A Federal Court has ordered the state of Alabama to take the monument down or face fines of up to $5,000.00 per day.
Who – or what – is right is not the point, at least not in this column. What is the point is that it is interesting that we in the U.S. are still having this discussion 212 years after the First Amendment was ratified. That in itself proves that the ideals of the Constitution are alive and well.