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Church-state separation preserves parity for citizens of all faiths

April 22, 1997

The issue:

Church-state separation

His view:

Church-state separation is important to

protect the rights of

citizens who are not of the Judeo-Christian faith.

Dr. Derek Davis

campus columnist

Ryan Riggs' recent editorial criticized America's church-state separation principle because it often restricts the religious practices of government institutions and their employees. We should praise the principle rather than ridicule it.

Riggs is especially anxious to defend the practices of Alabama Judge Roy Moore. Contrary to what Riggs believes, Moore is not being sued to protect his right to remind all who enter his courtroom that the Ten Commandments hanging on his wall are 'the foundation for all Western law.' By his own admission Moore is seeking 'to return America to its Christian roots,' a policy he also carries out by regularly inviting clergymen (Christians only) to pray before jury panels.

The Constitution protects the judge's free exercise of religion, but limits it when he dons the robe. The First Amendment prohibits judges, Christians and non-Christians alike, from using the power of their office to impose their religion on those who come under their authority.

In Moore's courtroom, any juror from outside the Judeo-Christian tradition is continually reminded that his or her religion is not as worthy as Moore's. Most Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, members of other minority religions and nonbelievers as well, could well appreciate that Moore personally holds to a different faith, but would find it offensive that he uses a government courtroom (which they own as taxpayers) to advance that faith. This is precisely the kind of discrimination the Founding Fathers sought to eliminate by sanctioning the separation of church and state.

Moreover, the trumpeting of Judeo-Christian standards in a courtroom flies in the face of our nation's commitment to the proposition that all citizens, religious believers or not, are capable of contributing to our democratic form of self-governance. This commitment can be traced to ancient philosophy (Aristotle), medieval theology (Thomas Aquinas) and Enlightenment political theory (John Locke), and affirms that natural law alone, without the aid of revealed divine law, equips everyone to participate in civic discourse. According to this tradition, religious faith may lead one to greater personal fulfillment in this life and the next, but it is not a prerequisite to effectively fulfilling public duties such as jury service.

Riggs also criticizes the separation principle because it causes confusion. But the confusion he cites is that of government officials who fail to respect or apply the principle, not that of courts which uphold it. It is indeed unfortunate that a local teacher would deny a student the right to read her Bible during 'free reading time,' but shouldn't Riggs be pleased that, as he says, 'even the most liberal judicial interpretation' would find this practice a denial of the student's religious rights? Moreover, if the University of Virginia was 'confused' enough to refuse funding for the publication of a campus Christian magazine when it funded far less proselytizing Jewish and Muslim publications, shouldn't he be praising the Supreme Court for a result he agrees with--the Court's holding that the University's practice was discriminatory?

Finally, Riggs thinks our Supreme Court practices a 'hypocrisy without bounds.' In view of the separation principle, it may indeed seem hypocritical that Congress begins its sessions with prayer, that the President takes the oath of office with a hand on the Bible, and that our coins say 'In God We Trust.' But these are generic practices that are upheld because they are not coercive in specific circumstances (unlike the Alabama judge's courtroom religious practices) and because America's religious underpinnings can not and should not be uniformly eliminated.

I know Ryan Riggs, and I know that he understands these issues better than his editorial suggests. But in this case his customary strategy of playing the campus gadfly only added to the confusion he sought to alleviate.

Dr. Derek H. Davis is the director of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies.

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