This is my second article on common myths surrounding state/church separation. The first article focused on the myth that the words separation of church and state are not found in the constitution. I want to note that this series was inspired by the writings of, and conversations with, Brent Walker, Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty in Washington, D.C. Brent spoke at our Church/State Issues Symposium in Philadelphia last April 2011.
The idea that God is being shunned from the public square is a notion commonly held by those who do not understand the concept of church/state separation. For example, at the Values Voter Summit in Washington last October, Mathew Staver, Dean of Liberty University Law School said “We are in a battle for the survival of Western civilization.” He said “In America, we are witnessing a battle over kicking God out of public schools and the public square…” What sort of issues have Americans United supported that would cause people to believe that we, and people who share are sentiments, are anti-God? I’ll briefly outline a couple of issues we support that people have taken offense to.
First, there’s prayer in public schools. In spite of the claims, there really are many avenues for religious expression allowed in our schools. Voluntary prayer is allowed. The teaching of comparative religion is allowed. Bible clubs before and after school are common. The wearing of religious clothing and symbols is allowed. What is not allowed is the endorsement of these activities by school officials, which is reasonable. Constitutionally, school districts cannot give preference to one religion over another so the safe approach is for public school districts to simply remain neutral. It is only state-sponsored religion that has been banned from the public schools. Voluntary student religious expression is protected as long as it does not disrupt the educational process and respects other students’ rights not to participate.
Another common complaint is that God has been kicked out of the learning process in schools. Many insist that creationism and other Bible-based explanations for the natural world are ignored in favor of Evolutionary Theory. The stand taken by our nation’s education community is that the Bible can be discussed in comparative religion classes but not science classes. This is because our society has concluded that the scientific process, that gave rise to Evolutionary Theory, is a fundamentally different sort of process than the religious process of discovery which arrives at conclusions through revelation and faith. One is not better than the other. Faith has its place in our lives just as science does. But they are distinctly different. So when educators omit faith-based topics from the science classroom they are not being hostile to religion, they are simply continuing our time-honored tradition of keeping religion and science separate.
It seems sacrilegious to me to hear well-intentioned, and presumably religious, people complain that God can be kicked out of anywhere. God is believed to be omniscient and omnipotent. The institutional separation of church and state does not mean the segregation of religion from politics or God from government or strip the right of people of faith to speak forcefully in the public square. It only means government cannot pass laws that have the primary purpose of advancing or hindering religion. Religious speech in public is common from bumper stickers, to billboards, to post-football-game prayer huddles.
In a culture as religious as ours, we should not be surprised that references to God occur in our pledge, our mottos, and our civil ceremonies. These brief expressions of religion (sometimes called “ceremonial deism”) will usually pass constitutional muster as long as they do not mandate religious worship or single out a particular religion for favored treatment. Many people have legitimate concerns about civil religion because it can be abused for political gain, morph into an idolatry of nationalism, or result in the trivialization of religion. The concept of Church/State separation simply holds that government should remain neutral with respect to the public display of religion.