Jayne: Separation between church and state not all that clear

By Greg Jayne, Columbian opinion editor

Published:

 

I love the letters.

Usually thoughtful, often insightful, occasionally wacky or silly or semi-coherent, our Letters to the Editor (and online comments) are one of the surprising pleasures of this job.

Lately, the daily pile of screeds from readers has contained many, many thoughts about the separation of church and state. This is because, several months ago, the Clark County commissioners started including an invocation at the beginning of their commission meetings.

Some people have contacted us in support of this, saying the commissioners are rightfully asking for help, guidance, and wisdom in conducting the business of the people. They have pointed out that the Founding Fathers mostly were people of faith, and if it's good enough for the Founding Father, by gum, it's good enough for us.

But a majority of the respondents have invoked their own beliefs -- separation of church and state. They have said that a public entity has no business bringing any sort of religion into its work as representatives.

It's a sticky wicket, indeed, and it's one that governments have wrestled with for, oh, some 230 years or so.

The Constitution, you see, makes no mention of religion, other than the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." That seems pretty clear. Congress cannot declare, for example, that Druidism is the nation's official religion, nor can it outlaw, say, Zoroastrianism.

Yet that's a far cry from dictating a separation between church and state, and it left me wondering where such a notion came from. Thinking that my single Constitutional Law class in college left me unqualified as an expert, I contacted professor William Funk at Lewis and Clark College's law school.

"'Separation' came from Thomas Jefferson, who coined the phrase 'wall of separation' between church and state," Funk wrote in an email. Ah, that Jefferson, he always had a way with words.

"In 1879, the Supreme Court referred to his phrase as 'almost an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the (Establishment Clause).' In 1947, in the first real Establishment Clause case to come to the Court, the Court again relied upon that phrase as a characterization of the effect of the clause," Funk continued.

The power of Jefferson

All of which is fascinating. The Constitution makes no mention of a separation, but for more than 100 years the Supreme Court has based its rulings on something else Jefferson wrote. Talk about a broad scope of power.

Commissioner Tom Mielke first put forth the idea of having an invocation prior to county meetings. When asked by fellow Commissioner Steve Stuart why he wanted to do this, Mielke quipped, "I need more help than I'm getting from my staff," which gets high marks on the comedy scale.

Since then, according to letter writer Ralph Warren, 83 percent of the invocations have been delivered by leaders from a Christian background, 5 percent from a Jewish or Messianic perspective, one came from the Assembly of the Baha'i, etc. I'll take Warren's word for it; I don't have time for math.

That, to me, seems to be a reasonable endeavor for the commission. Certainly, there could be drawbacks. If the entire commission was made up of Satanists and insisted on a sacrifice prior to each meeting, some people might have a problem with that. But taking a minute to ask for guidance with important decisions doesn't really do any harm.

Professor Funk wrote: "Such separation is not, however, a good metaphor for where the court currently stands on the subject. In a word, neutrality is where it's at today. Government must be neutral between religions and between religion and non-religion."

All of this, however, might be moot. The Supreme Court earlier this year agreed to hear a case involving a Christian pastor saying a prayer prior to town council meetings in Greece, N.Y.

Can't wait to see the letters that one will generate.