With the coming controversies of Christmas I figure this should be a good pre- Holiday read.
Thomas Jefferson's "wall of separation" metaphor allowed the Supreme Court to redefine church-state law and policy—and not necessarily in a good way.
Daniel Dreisbach | posted 11/12/2008 02:13PM
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Originally a restriction on the civil government's powers, the First Amendment has been reinterpreted to grant power to the government to define and, ultimately, restrict the place of religion in society. Herein lies the danger of this metaphor. Today people frequently invoke the "wall" to separate religion from public life, thereby promoting a religion that is essentially private and a civil state that is strictly secular.
The "high and impregnable" wall constructed by the modern Court inhibits religion's ability to inform the public ethic, deprives religious citizens of the civil liberty to participate in politics armed with ideas informed by their spiritual values, and infringes the right of religious communities and institutions to extend their prophetic ministries into the public square. Jefferson's figurative barrier has been used to silence the religious voice in the marketplace of ideas and to segregate faith communities behind a restrictive wall.
Those who criticize modern constructions of the wall are not necessarily supporting a religious establishment. Rather, these critics contend that the First Amendment requires that religion and religious perspectives must be allowed to compete in the public sphere, without government inhibition, on the same terms as their secular counterparts. By its very nature, however, a high wall does not permit this.
The use of Jefferson's metaphoric wall to exclude religion from public life is at war with our cultural traditions insofar as it shows a callous indifference toward religion. It also offends basic notions of freedom of religious exercise, expression, and association in a pluralistic society. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court's "high and impregnable" wall has redefined First Amendment principles, transforming a bulwark of religious liberty into an instrument of intolerance and censorship.
Daniel L. Dreisbach is professor of justice, law, and society at American University and author of Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation between Church and State (2002).
Copyright © 2008 by the author or Christianity Today International/Christian History & Biography magazine.
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