Ah... the separation of Church and State. If you talk about politics and religion at all, it's highly likely you've run across this phrase.
Apparently, however, a lot of mistaken ideas and incorrect applications appear to surround this loose rephrasing of the First Amendment. Where did the idea of the "separation of Church and State" come from, and what does it mean in our daily lives?
Unfortunately for many in our culture, it means freedom from religion - a barrier to protect our government from being tainted by religious ideals, and an edict to keep religious expressions away from the public eye to accommodate those who might be offended.
A few months ago, Fox News reported a bit of controversy surrounding the naming of a street outside a firehouse in Brooklyn where seven firefighters who died on September 11, 2001 once served (read the full article here). A group called the New York City Atheists promptly made demands to have the sign removed, citing that the city had violated the separation of Church and State.
The term "separation of Church and State" was first coined by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to the Danbury Baptists Association, which had contacted him with a concern that the newly-fledged government might lack sufficient protection of their religious liberties. Jefferson wrote to allay those fears:
"...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."
Jefferson's intent, then, was not to relay that religion had no part in government - but rather that the government had no power to meddle in religion.
This is an echoing of the beginning of the First Amendment, which states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof".
Remember - it doesn't say that "Congress shall make no law in support of religion", nor does it say "Congress shall make no law against religion". It says that "Congress shall make no law regarding religion".
None. Not a one.
Now, let's apply this to the situation in Brooklyn.
What law did Congress make respecting an establishment of religion?
What law did Congress make that prohibited the free exercise of religion?
Don't worry if you don't see it. It isn't there. Rather than support the atheistic demands, the First Amendment stands staunchly apart from the whole debate, protecting the religious rights by refusing to infringe on them.
The whole complaint centers on a severe misunderstanding of the First Amendment. Rather than interpreting the Amendment rightly, as a protection of religion, they quote it as an attempt to require the Government to protect them from religion.
Let's pretend that happened, just for a second. Where would that place us? Congress, for instance, would need to make a law that states that no religious-themed street signs shall be allowed in public places.
Whoops! Hang on - wouldn't that means that Congress just made a law regarding religion, and the free exercise thereof? Wouldn't that be the real violation of the Constitution?
If you answer yes, give yourself a pat on the back - it's time for recess. If you answer no... I'll see you after school.