f The Wittenberg Door: First Amendment Abuse

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Commenting on Christendom, culture, history, and other oddities of life from an historic Protestant perspective.

Monday, January 06, 2014

First Amendment Abuse

From The Wittenberg Door archives . . .

Beginning in 1998, the Utah Highway Patrol Association begin erecting monuments to fallen patrolmen along the Utah highways. The monuments are in the shape of a cross and include the fallen officer's picture and biographical information. Although the monuments, 14 in all, are privately funded, they are on public land since that is where the officers fell. The State of Utah allowed the monuments to be erected, but did provide the caveat that it "neither approves or disapproves of the memorial marker."

A group of Texas atheists sued to have the memorials taken down. In response a federal court ruled in the atheists' favor and declared the memorials unconstitutional. From CNN . . .

A three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday that the 14 large crosses would be viewed by most passing motorists as "government's endorsement of Christianity."

"We hold that these memorials have the impermissible effect of conveying to the reasonable observer the message that the state prefers or otherwise endorses a certain religion," concluded the Denver, Colorado-based court . . .

At issue was whether the crosses violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, by having the government endorsing the Christian symbols, even if indirectly.

(A quick side note regarding the Utah ruling. There is something that strikes me as amusing: Mormons reject the cross as a symbol. So, a state founded by Mormons for Mormons, and remains predominately Mormon to this day, is, according to the court, now embracing the cross and endorsing Christianity. Riiiiiiiiight.)

The First Amendment

Whether ruling on school prayer, or the teaching of Intelligent Design, or the displaying of the Ten Commandments, or even these memorial crosses, the courts seem intent on using the Establishment Clause (or, more properly, the Non-Establishment Clause) to justify the disallowing of certain perceived religious, particularly Christian, expressions. But was it indeed the intent of the Founding Fathers to have a public square bereft of religion? In other words, were they trying to protect the state against the church? Let’s begin by reviewing the amendment in question:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

(First Amendment - Freedom of Religion, Press, Expression)

Original Intent

America was established as a Christian nation (i.e., founded with Christian values), but with a secular government. Part of that was to reject the European model of state churches. Back in 1791, the year the First Amendment was ratified, 9 of the 13 state governments had official, tax-supported churches. Since the amendment was seen as only applying to the federal government, nobody believed that there was any conflict—nobody, that is, except for Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut.

The Connecticut state constitution endorsed Congregationalism. Although the Baptists were tolerated, they had serious concerns about discrimination; they were also concerned that the state government would start interfering with the operation of the church. So, in 1801, the Danbury Baptist Association took a bold step and wrote the newly elected President of the United States—Thomas Jefferson.

Our Sentiments are uniformly on the side of Religious Liberty – That Religion is at all times and places a Matter between God and Individuals – That no man ought to suffer in Name, person or effects on account of his religious Opinions – That the legitimate Power of civil Government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbour: But Sir our constitution of government is not specific. Our antient charter, together with the Laws made coincident therewith, were adopted as the Basis of our government at the time of our revolution; and such had been our laws & usages, & such still are; that Religion is considered as the first object of Legislation; & therefore what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the State) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights: and these favors we receive at the expense of such degrading acknowledgements, as are inconsistent with the rights of freemen. It is not to be wondered at therefore; if those who seek after power & gain under the pretence of government & Religion should reproach their fellow men – should reproach their chief Magistrate, as an enemy of religion Law & good order because he will not, dares not assume the prerogative of Jehovah and make Laws to govern the Kingdom of Christ.

Jefferson agreed with the Baptists that it was inappropriate for the state to interfere with maters of conscience, faith, and worship. In his reply to the Baptists he penned the famous words:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, 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. adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

Our Founding Fathers were careful to guard against the establishment of a state (federal) church, hence this amendment—they stipulated that congress may not establish a state church, nor infringe upon the citizens' right to worship as they please. Here's my question: How do these memorials to fallen officers establish an official, state-sponsored church of the United States? Same question for offering alternatives to macro-evolution, or allowing school prayer, or a plaque displaying the Ten Commandments. They obviously don't.


Although a cross is a religious symbol, it has been co-opted for secular purposes--to be a grave marker or a memorial. The Ten Commandments are given by God and thus have a religious origin. But they are also the grounds for our justice system and so have been likewise co-opted. Macro-evolution is a theory, despite how it is taught in our schools, with many problems. Intelligent Design answers those problems; because of its explanatory power, it should at least be acknowledged when origins are being taught.

The truth is that the courts misuse the amendment to discriminate against positions they don't like. The intention of the Founding Fathers couldn't be more clear, but these judges aren't interested in that--they'd rather use the Constitution as a wax nose to refashion the country to their liking. Why let truth get in the way?

--The Catechizer

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Any serious, objective study of the Founders will inform you that they went to great lengths to avoid establishing the United States as a Christian Nation

7:27 PM  
Blogger The Catechizer and The Deacon said...

Anonymous, Christianity is the worldview upon which this country was founded; it was presupposed even by those, such as Jefferson, who rejected Biblical Christianity. It is because of this that our revolution was so starkly different from that of the French (its Atheistic presupposition allowed for the horrific barbarism and deprivation of freedoms). What they established was a country whose values were Christian but government was, by-in-large, secular. And with regard to the church, they were careful to guard against the establishment of a state (federal) church, while ensuring that the government did not interfere with the church or the religious practices of the people.

8:24 AM  

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