A Secular Nation?

James L. Graham March/April 1999
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The laws of every society reflect certain moral presuppositions. The law prohibits, allows, or promotes certain behaviors based upon what that society deems right or wrong. In America today, both sides of the debate on such divisive public issues as abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, and pornography are taking a distinct moral stance. Thus, the issue of the role of religion in public life is an important one that deserves the public's attention.

History has played a significant role in the Court's interpretation of the Establishment Clause. The average citizen, as well as the constitutional scholar, understands that the history surrounding the writing of the Constitution sheds light on what it meant to the men who wrote it, and to the people of the United States who ratified it through their duly elected representatives. Those who oppose government acknowledgment of religion invariably invoke the now famous words of Thomas Jefferson, who said that the Establishment Clause was intended to erect "a wall of separation" between church and state. Many Americans assume that Jefferson played an instrumental role in the adoption of the First Amendment and that his metaphor is an authoritative comment on its meaning. This belief, which has reached the status of a civic myth, has contributed to public confusion about the history and meaning of the First Amendment. Jefferson, in fact, had no role in the drafting of the Consti-tution or the Bill of Rights; indeed, he was in France, where he served as United States minister to the French government from 1785 to 1789. Jefferson's comment about a wall of separation was contained in a letter he wrote more than a decade after the Bill of Rights was ratified by the states.

Jefferson, the third president of the United States, was an advocate of the antireligious philosophy of the European Enlightenment. His position on the role of religion in public life stands in stark contrast to that of the nation's first president. George Washington was not only the first chief executive but also the president of the Constitutional Convention and presided over that body's deliberations. He was the most highly respected public figure of the day. In his first inaugural address, Washington deliberately made prayer a part of his first official act as president: "It would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States a government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes."

The most compelling evidence of the meaning of the Establishment Clause is to be found in the actions of the Congress that drafted it and submitted it to the states for their approval. The first Congress is "a Congress whose constitutional decisions have always been regarded, as they should be regarded, as of the greatest weight in the interpretation of that fundamental instrument." On the same day it approved the language of the First Amendment, the first Congress urged the president to declare "a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favours of Almighty God." On the very same day it approved the language of the Establishment Clause, the first Congress reenacted the Northwest Ordinance. Article 3 thereof states: "Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged."

Congress made adherence to the Northwest Ordinance a condition of statehood.

The actions of the first Congress were a clear signal to the states that the members of that first Congress believed it was proper under the Establishment Clause for the federal government to acknowledge religion in various ways. The states ratified the First Amendment after the first Congress took these actions, and no records exist indicating that the states voiced disagreement with Congress' interpretation of the Establishment Clause, as evidenced by its actions. Thus it is fair to assume that the Bill of Rights was ratified with the understanding that those actions were proper under the First Amendment.

That this nation was founded on transcendent values that flow from a belief in a Supreme Being seems beyond dispute. The Declaration of Independence, which specifically invokes the Deity on four occasions, states: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator, with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.-

Washington, in his farewell address, said: "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. ... Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle."

John Adams, the nation's second president, said: "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other"

In Zorach v. Clauson, the Supreme Court said: "We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being."

In School District of Abington Township., 374 U.S. 213, the Supreme Court said: "The fact that the Founding Fathers believed devotedly that there was a God and that the unalienable rights of man were rooted in Him is clearly evidenced in their writings, from the Mayflower Compact to the Constitution itself."

Thirty-five years ago Justice Arthur Goldberg warned that "untutored devotion to the concept of neutrality" can lead to "a brooding and pervasive devotion to the secular and a passive, or even active, hostility to the religious," a result "not only not compelled by the Constitution, but ... prohibited by it."

For these reasons, I believe that striking down Ohio's motto, "With God All Things Are Possible," would evince the kind of brooding devotion to the secular that Justice Goldberg warned against, and that indeed are contrary both to the Constitution itself and the history of this nation.--James Graham.

Article Author: James L. Graham