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Fred Silberberg

Fred Silberberg

Posted: April 19, 2010 06:03 PM

You don't have to be a Constitutional scholar to know that one of the basic tenets of our governmental structure is separation of church and state. The framers of the Constitution were well aware of, and fearful of, the curtailment of individual rights if the religious institutions were allowed to control any aspect of government. It was that environment which they wished to escape when they and their ancestors came to the East Coast and founded our nation.

The American legal principal of separation of church and state is, of course, embodied in the First Amendment to the Constitution: "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." The concern of religious involvement in government has, it seems until recent times, been a long-standing concern of American citizens. In 1801, the Danbury Baptist Association sent a letter to President Thomas Jefferson expressing their concern over the lack of governmental protection of religious liberty and against governmental establishment of religion in the Connecticut Constitution. In response, Jefferson wrote: "Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and 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 and State." This reference to the "Wall of Separation" is repeated frequently throughout American History. The essential concept has been reaffirmed numerous times by the United States Supreme Court.

One must question, then, how it is that this "Wall of Separation" has been allowed to so significantly crumble in present-day American society. While it may be true that religious institutions are not permitted any government-sanctioned ability to legislate anything affecting our rights as Americans, and while it may also be true that our government does not sanction the practice of any particular religion, there is a certainly a tacit policy in effect of allowing religious beliefs to dictate the rights of, and affect the civil liberties of, Americans on a daily basis. One would suspect that if our Founding Fathers were aware of this growing influence in American society they would likely be turning over in their graves.

The never-ending battle over abortion rights is but one such example. The continued effort to restrict those rights is one which is consistently advocated by right-wing Christian religious extremists, driven by their religious beliefs that abortion, in any form, is murder. We have seen, just in the past month, how the wall of separation further crumbled when those advocating the positions taught to them by their churches held hostage certain aspects of health care reform. Whether you agree with health care reform or not is not the issue. What is the issue is that the shaping of policy which will affect the lives of every single American was influenced directly by conservative Christian motivations.

Abortion, a right confirmed by the United States Supreme Court in its interpretation of the Constitution in Roe v. Wade, is not the only right affected by conservative Christian influences. The continued disparate treatment of gays and lesbians in this country through a myriad of policies restricting civil rights and governmental benefits (such as the right to marry, to serve openly in the military, to share in social security with their partners or spouses) is also a curtailment of rights that is solely based on religious motivations. Those groups who advocate the formalization of these policies are exclusively motivated by their religious beliefs. The recent stir in the press regarding the opposition towards potential Supreme Court nominee Elana Kagan (whose sexual orientation, though not relevant to the issue, is not even confirmed) on the basis that she may be homosexual by such groups as Focus on the Family is a stellar example of this type of religiously driven influence on the government. Undoubtedly, those very same Senators who held health care hostage in exchange for limitations on coverage for abortion will also vote against Kagan or any nominee who may actually be gay.

Similarly, government restrictions on funding for such things as stem-cell research are entirely based on religious beliefs. While one may argue that there is no civil right to stem-cell research, the impact of such research certainly can affect the lives of thousands of Americans who have been suffering from debilitating diseases and paralyzing injuries. It is solely religious beliefs which motivated the restrictions on such research during the Bush administration; those conservative beliefs do not sanction the source of harvesting stem-cells just as they oppose the rights of women to obtain abortions in this country. The result is that our nation lags behind significantly in developing new treatments for such diseases and injuries.

While our Constitution certainly guarantees each American the right to practice his or her religion and to adhere to the beliefs that each individual may have, the intent behind the concept of separation of church and state was to avoid restricting the rights of citizens based upon religious motivations. The hypocrisy of present day American life is that notwithstanding these built-in safeguards to protect against exactly that which is occurring, as a result thereof in many instances we, as Americans, have fewer rights than citizens of present day European countries where the church is not locked out of governmental involvement. One wonders whether Jefferson and his compatriots, were they around today, would cross the Atlantic in the opposite direction.

The fundamental principle of "you cannot restrict my rights because of your own religious beliefs" is no longer fundamental. Yet it remains in our Constitution and the Bill of Rights. As an American citizen, my wish is that we speak up to insure that this wall of separation be rebuilt, and that we not be curtailed or restricted in our ability to grow as a society solely because of the beliefs of any one religious group. The intent behind the Constitution was to protect individual freedoms. If you do not believe in abortion, you can choose to have a child, but don't tell other women that they must see the pregnancy through because of your religious beliefs. You aren't raising the child that will result. If you believe homosexuality is a sin, you can have that belief, but don't tell people who love each other that they can't marry because they are gay; it doesn't affect you. If you don't believe in stem-cell research, then don't contribute to institutions that conduct it. However, people with neurological disorders shouldn't continue to suffer because your religious beliefs oppose research developments that could help them. We talk constantly about the fear of fundamentally religious terrorism from abroad. What we don't realize is that we, as a nation, have allowed our own country to be ruled in part by our own domestic religious fundamentalism.