Thursday, July 11, 2019

Freedom of Religion Is a Founding Principle

The phrase “separation of church and state” is not found in the Constitution. 

Danbury Baptist letter
from Thomas Jefferson
image found here
As I mention toward the end of the Civilization section of the Spherical Model, Jefferson wrote this phrase in a letter to the Danbury Baptists, 

to assure them that the “free exercise of religion” mentioned in the First Amendment was not a declaration that the right was granted by government, but that it was inalienable, and that there would not and could not be a religious sect favored by the US government to the exclusion of the others.
Unlike most other countries they were aware of, America would not have a state-sponsored, or favored, religion. That is what was meant by “establishment of religion” in the First Amendment. Rather than favor a particular sect—by taxing citizens to support it or favoring people who belong to it—the Founders wanted freedom of religion, and religious belief, to flourish. They did favor belief in God, and they favored people living religion-inspired lives.

Unfortunately, that idea has been twisted to practically the exact opposite of what the Founders envisioned. Somewhere along the line, government that would neither establish religion nor interfere with the free exercise thereof morphed into government that might override religious freedom whenever someone objected to something religious appearing in public view.

I’ve heard this called a couple of things: the dissenter’s veto, or offended observer status.

Let’s start today by clarifying what the Founders thought about religion in America.

A couple of weeks ago, in time for the 4th of July, Ben Shapiro had historian David Barton on his Sunday Special interview show. Shapiro has written a book on the impact of religious thought on the American founding, and that’s something of a specialty for Barton, so it was a fun hour-long conversation.

David Barton with Ben Shapiro
screenshot from here

Barton points out that the Founders had no problem with religion. In fact, in the Northwest Ordinance, signed by George Washington in 1789, which allowed new states to join the US,

That law specifically says, Article III, “Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and means of education shall forever be encouraged.” So, to this day, if you look in constitutions like the current North Carolina constitution; you look in Iowa, Kansas, etc.; it says, “Forever in the public schools of this state, religion and morality shall be taught, as well as knowledge.” So, they saw that as a mandate, that you can’t be a part of America if your schools don’t promote religion and morality.
Barton talked about the sources for many of the Founders ideas. Many of their phrases come from other writers: John Wise, John Locke, Charles Montesquieu—but more from the Bible. He recommended a book that actually tracked down the sources:

It’s called The Origins of American Constitutionalism. This is done by professors at the University of Houston, poli-sci professors; it’s published by LSU Press. And these guys said, you know, when you look at the American documents, we’re different from every other nation. We have ideas that other nations never implemented. Where’d our founders get those ideas? And they said, “We think that if we can go back and read what they wrote and see who they quoted, we’ll know where they got their ideas.”
So they collected 15,000 representative writings out of the founding era. They went through all 15,000. They found 3154 direct quotes. It took them ten years to document every quote back to its original source. At the end of ten years they said, “We now know where the founders got their ideas.”
So, the number one most cited individual—and when you’ve got 6,000 years of writings, and you’ve got tens of thousands of nations that have come and gone, you’ve got a lot of people you can choose from—they said the number one most cited individual was Charles Montesquieu. Bear in mind, Montesquieu out of France, The Spirit of the Law, 1750, 8.3%. That’s a lot for one guy, when you’ve got thousands to choose from.
Number two was William Blackstone, his four-volume Commentary on the Laws. That was number two at 7.9%. Number three was John Locke at 2.9%, particularly this book by Locke: Two Treatises of Government. Those were the top cited individuals.
But what they found that was really kind of shocking was, the single most cited source in the American founding was the Bible: 34%. That’s twelve times more than Locke, four times more than Montesquieu, four times more than Blackstone. The Bible.
And then they said, “Which Bible verse is recorded most often? And which books?” And Deuteronomy is the number one most quoted book—where Israel is building its nation. Moses is setting up the nation. And then Isaiah was next most quoted.
And so, even the secular academics have documented that the Bible was the primary source in the ideas that shaped the American founding. So it’s not like it’s in the atmosphere and it’s in the culture; these guys really did think according to specific Bible verses, and they applied them.
And so that, and between the Founders’ Bible, it’s pretty compelling that it was just not the atmosphere or the culture; it was the thinking that went behind it.
What were some of the ideas they got from these sources? Things like government needing the consent of the governed, and all men are created equal, and we’re endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights.

Meanwhile, presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke went to meet some immigrants and refugees in Tennessee and told would-be Americans that he’s ashamed because America was "founded on white supremacy." That’s what he said. It’s hard to be that wrong; he must work at it.

As Barton said, “If the government were at least not hostile, it would be helpful.” He talked about how Kentucky schools had a problem with a picture of the Ten Commandments being included among other art, such as George Washington and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, hanging in the school halls. The question went to court as to whether it was constitutional for a student to voluntarily read the Ten Commandments on a piece of art at school. In that case the court ruled no.

And to quote the Court, it said, “If a student were to see the Ten Commandments, they might be induced to read them. If they read them, they might venerate, respect, and obey them. And that would be unconstitutional.” Oh yeah, things like don’t steal and don’t kill and don’t perjure yourself. So legally we can’t even put in front of kids what is hanging in more than 50 locations in the Supreme Court. US Supreme Court has more than 50 depictions of the Ten Commandments in it. Some of are in stone.
Barton refers to this situation—the removal of religion from public places—as the dissenter’s veto:It’s a ridiculous situation we’ve put ourselves in—or we’ve allowed the legal system to do to us:

if somebody objects to everybody else sharing their faith, we’re going to make everybody else stop so this this guy won’t object. Nonsense. You don’t let one person veto everyone else.
Barton is hopeful that, with new justices—and I think he means the US Supreme Court as well as many new conservative, law-reading justices in lower courts as well—things are looking up.

We’re starting to win some things we haven’t won in 50, 60 years. We’re seeing a turn.
Courts are no substitute for the people learning their history and purposefully living good, religious lives. But at least the courts can prevent some official hostility toward religion.

He’s not the only one to think things are looking up. On July 10th, on The Blaze’s The News and Why It Matters,* one of the guests was Lathan Watts, Director of Communications, First Liberty Institute, with some good news. The story that he highlighted was from last week, a policy change issued by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, allowing the inclusion of religious content in publicly accessible displays at VA facilities.

Lathan Watts, with First Liberty Institute,
on The News and Why It Matters, July 10, 2019
screenshot from here

Here’s the story behind it. In Manchester, New Hampshire, at a VA hospital, the Northeast POW/MIA Network (First Liberty’s client) had received permission to put up a POW/MIA remembrance table, as is done in many VA hospitals around the country:

Every item on a POW/MIA table is symbolic. There’s a yellow rose. There’s an empty chair for the POW. And one of those symbols is typically a Bible that symbolizes the strength gained through faith, of the POW and his family while they wait.
Well, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation—which is an Orwellian named group, because they hate religious freedom—[started by a guy name Mikey Weinstein]. And he sent a letter to the VA facility in Manchester saying that it was illegal to have this Bible, and that it was somehow an establishment clause violation, threatening to sue them. So we sent a letter to the VA explaining what the law actually is, and what the current VA policy was, that this is a private display and it’s perfectly acceptable to have it there. And that director made the right decision, and it’s going to stay.
In the process of defending against Weinstein’s attack, First Liberty sent a letter to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, asking for a nationwide policy, to prevent this anti-religious group from attacking one VA facility after another, since the current policy was to leave such decisions to the facility directors, who may not be aware of their rights and could comply needlessly. And that led to the Secretary’s issuing the new policy.

There’s more good news attached:

And the great thing about their press release is, right at the end they say, “The US Supreme Court recently reaffirmed the important role religion plays in the lives of many Americans, and it’s consistency with constitutional principles.” That’s a direct cite of the recent case that we just won about three weeks ago, the American Legion v. American Humanist Association. So it was great to see almost an immediate impact of that decision. And a new policy’s going to protect these types of displays all over the country.
We hadn’t spent much time on that case, but we did mention it, as a bit of good news, at the end of Monday’s post. In that case, the Bladensburg WWI Veterans Memorial, a large cross that has been standing for close to a century, was found offensive by the American Humanist Association for “establishing” a religion—in other words, forcing nonbelievers to participate in an established government-approved religious sect—simply because they can view the memorial. Finally, we have a court that doesn’t buy that.

Watts comments,

The constitution protects your rights, not your feelings. It’s as simple as that. And that was one of the great things in the American Legion decision. Justice Gorsuch, in his concurrence that Justice Thomas joined… said now that we’re returning to the original text of the First Amendment in analyzing these cases, we should also completely do away with the offended observer status. And Thomas agreed with him and said these types of cases should be dismissed for lack of standing. Just because you’re offended by seeing an object should not provide you standing to go into court and have that object removed or torn down.
About that offended observer status—what David Barton referred to as the dissenter’s veto, the supposed loophole that gives a single individual the right to overrule everyone else’s religious freedom—he says he thinks such cases will be more easily dismissed. He adds that offended observer status is

only present in establishment clause cases. It’s the only place in the law where we recognize this right to go to court and have something torn down because you don’t like it. It’s only in establishment clause cases.
And so, hopefully this is the indication that it’s morning in America again.
Let’s hope so. Let the light dawn once again on those Founding ideas that made America exceptional in the first place.
* This link may require a subscription. But the segment is available on Facebook here

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