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Con: Framers of Constitution wouldn’t object to federal funds for religious good works

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Burke A. Christensen
July 28, 2008
EDITOR’S NOTE The writer is addressing the question, Does federal funding of faith-based programs unconstitutionally erode the wall of separation between church and state?

No, there is no such “wall of separation” in the Constitution. That phrase comes from a letter written in 1802 by President Thomas Jefferson and did not become a substitute for the First Amendment until 1947.


In 1985 Chief Justice William Rehnquist said: “Unfortunately the Establishment Clause has been expressly freighted with Jefferson’s misleading metaphor for nearly 40 years.” Justice Potter Stewart in 1962 said that “the uncritical invocation of metaphors like the ‘wall of separation,’ a phrase found nowhere in the Constitution” did not aid in understanding our laws.


The First Amendment says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”


James Madison said those words meant “that Congress should not establish a religion, and enforce the legal observation of it by law, nor compel men to worship God in any manner contrary to their conscience.”


Federal funding of faith-based initiatives does none of that. The Founders did want the state to support religious belief.


In his 1796 Farewell Address, President Washington said: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. … Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? … And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. …Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”


Washington would have politicians respect and cherish the role of religion in support of good government.


Is there any other evidence that the phrase “wall of separation” did not mean to Jefferson what opponents of federal funding of faith-based initiatives now claim?


Yes. Just two days after signing the “wall of separation” letter, Jefferson attended a church service held in the House of Representatives. Would one who wanted to keep religion and government completely separate attend church in a building funded by the state?


James Madison attended church services held weekly in the chambers of the House of Representatives. Both Jefferson (as founder) and Madison (as trustee) encouraged religious instruction on the campus of the University of Virginia, a public educational institution funded by the Commonwealth of Virginia.


If they were comfortable allowing citizens to use the chamber of the House of Representatives as a chapel, and providing resources for religious instruction at a state university, Madison and Jefferson would have no difficulty funding a church-sponsored shelter for abused women.


The federal government has permitted churches to use government buildings as houses of worship in every one of the 206 years since Jefferson wrote the “wall of separation” letter.


Church services of several denominations were held in the first Treasury Building until it was burned in 1814. When John Quincy Adams, our sixth president, was serving as a U.S. senator for Massachusetts, he attended church services held in the chambers of the U.S. Supreme Court. If the government supported using the Supreme Court chambers as a church, how can federal funding of faith-based initiatives be an impermissible governmental endorsement of religion?


It is a constitutional use of our tax money for the government to operate state-owned facilities that provide free day care, parenting classes, medical care, drug abuse counseling, and shelters for the homeless or for abused women and children. The goal of these services is to help our fellow-citizens.


A phrase that doesn’t exist in the Constitution should not be the excuse used to prevent the funding of important services to our citizens simply because the help is being sponsored by a church.


Jefferson didn’t intend that. Madison wouldn’t support it and Washington would be appalled at the thought.


Burke A. Christensen, who holds a bachelor’s degree in history from the Utah State University and a Juris Doctorate from the University of Utah College of Law, is the Robert B. Morgan Professor of Insurance at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, Ky. Readers may write to him at EKU Insurance Studies Program, 521 Lancaster Ave., BTC, Room 030 Richmond, Ky. 40475; e-mail: burke.Christensen@eku.edu.

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