Misunderstanding Separation of Church and State

Misunderstanding Separation of Church and State
by Nylvyn Ian Catapang, reposting with permission.

The principle of separation of church and state is often cited by many persons in all sorts of situations. From traditional politicians trying to surreptitiously push a morally questionable population control program, to anti-clerics who want to monopolize debate in important issues, the principle of separation is employed whenever the Catholic Church, or any other religion, speaks out and steps on a few toes.

The separation of church and state is sometimes thought of as a “wall” separating the affairs of the two. Those who follow this thinking usually claim that religion should have nothing to do with the affairs of men. They would probably also say that religious belief should not influence the crafting of laws, affect the actions of public officials, or even be part of public debate. Instead, government should be neutral towards all religions and be totally secular in nature. Such secularism can therefore be seen as an embodiment of the separation principle.

Carlos Palad, in his essay, “Secularism: A Hidden Danger“, explains it thus:

Secularism is an attitude that takes away the public sphere from the rightful influence of religious belief. Secularism is an outlook, sometimes rising (as in contemporary France) to the level of a state-sponsored ideology, that insists on considering all public matters from a vantage point characterized by a reliance on human reason, and free of any reference to the sacred. This is because the individual conscience must be defended and freedom of discourse allowed, and (so secularists believe) this can be done only by allowing for common ground characterized by a “reasonableness” uninfluenced by “sectarian” considerations. For this reason, the secularist mentality insists on excluding religious views from the public square, often under the plea that Church and State must be considered separate.

Secularism does not necessarily judge religious beliefs to be “wrong” or even “irrational”; it simply considers them to be purely a matter of private judgment or opinion, that should be left at the doorsteps of any public institution. Secularists often profess respect for religious belief, as long as it is kept precisely that: a mere belief without bearing on public affairs. Behind this attitude towards religion is the presupposition that religion is a dangerous element once brought into the public sphere; religion is seen as productive (better word is product) of intolerance and bigotry, and as precluding all “common ground” between the various combatants in the sphere of public discourse. Classic examples of this indifference towards the importance of religious belief in public life are at present supplied by the so-called “Catholics” of the Democratic Party (John Kerry, Edward Kennedy) who say that they are “personally opposed” to abortion but that they are in favor of its continued legalization because “they don’t want to impose their private beliefs” on other people.

But is this “secularism”, this interpretation of the separation of church and state right? Does it have any legal basis?

The Philippines is currently governed by the 1987 Constitution, which states in Article II, Section 6:

The separation of Church and State shall be inviolable.

In Article III, Section 5, the Constitution also states:

No law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever be allowed. No religious test shall be required for the exercise of civil or political rights.

The Philippine Constitution therefore has some similarities to the U.S. Constitution in that it specifies two points governing the relationship between the state and religion. First there is an “establishment” provision which prohibits the establishment of an offical state religion or a state-favored religion. Then there is the guarantee of protection of the free exercise of religion.

There is no mention, however, of a “wall” separating religion and government. More importantly, there is nothing that mandates that religious belief cannot be a consideration in the crafting of laws and public policy, or that it be kept out of public debate, or that public officals must abandon religious beliefs in the performance of their duties. It can be argued then that the idea of a “wall” separating church and state really has has no constitutional basis.

The American Experience

It might be of interest to note that the U.S. Constitution says this, and only this:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .

That is the only constitutional provision on the matter. There is no mention of a “wall” separating religion from public debate, or keeping religious belief out of government. The idea of a “wall” of separation does appear in other writings, for example in Thomas Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists (dated Jan. 1, 1802), wherein he writes:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.

That “wall” in Jefferson’s letter, however, seems to be protecting religion from state interference, not keeping religion out of public life.

Another interpretation of the “separation” was in the the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, adopted in 1786. This was also written by Thomas Jefferson and pushed by James Madison, and guaranteed that no one may be compelled to finance any religion or denomination. It reads, in part:

Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

The document itself speaks of keeping the state from adopting any religion or imposing the same through any coercive means. It does not, however, state that religion can have no role in public life.

The thinking of British philosopher John Locke, which deeply influenced the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, made use of the principle of a “social contract”. In the Wikipedia entry on Separation of Church and State, we find this:

According to his principle of the social contract, Locke argued that the government lacked authority in the realm of individual conscience, as this was something rational people could not cede to the government for it or others to control. For Locke, this created a natural right in the liberty of conscience, which he argued must therefore remain inviolable by any government authority. These views on religious tolerance and the importance of individual conscience, along with his social contract, became influential in the American colonies.

Locke’s view is again totally different from the preposterous idea that the “church should not interfere in the affairs of men”. If anything, it expressed an opposite view: that the state should not interfere in matters of conscience.

Even the US Supreme Court has begun to turn away from the position espoused by those who want to silence the Church using the “separation of church and state” argument. The same Wikipedia article notes this as follows:

The term was used and defended heavily by the Court until the early 1970s. Since that time, the Court has distanced itself from the metaphor, often suggesting the metaphor conveys hostility to religion in contrast to Jefferson’s original eaning “… in behalf of the rights of [religious] conscience.” In Wallace v. Jaffree, Justice Rehnquist presented the view that he establishment clause was intended to protect local establishments of religion from federal interference — a view which diminished the strong separation views of the Court. Justice Scalia has criticized the metaphor as a bulldozer removing religion from American public life.

Again, we see here that the purpose of separation of church and state is todefend religion from federal interference, not the other way around.

Public office

Some have even gone so far as to claim that separation of church and state means that religious leaders — including priests and ministers — cannot run for public office. This is plain religious discrimination and has no legal basis in the Philippines (or for that matter, in the U.S.).

The Catholic Church itself discourages priests from participating in partisan politics since such participation may divide the flock; but this is not a constitutional or legal prohibition, and the Church can also allow it in some cases. As far as the law goes, there is simply no provision whatsoever in either the U.S. or Philippine Constitutions that prohibits priests and ministers from holding public office.

Silencing the Church

The bottom line is that the principle of separation of church and state is to guarantee religious freedom by preventing oppression by the government. Yet it seems that there are those who would rather use it as a means to keep the Church from pointing out errors and exposing wrongdoing.

The dangers posed by such attempts to shut out religion are quite real and should concern us all, as Carlos Palad also pointed out:

Just as indifference towards religion often masks a latent hostility towards it, so the secularist mentality often ends up in outright persecution of religius belief. There is no way this slide can be averted, for if religious belief is something that is too dangerous to be displayed in public, then perhaps it is something that should eventually be extirpated for the public good. In our time, this creeping hostility often combines with a tendency to consider abortion, homosexuality and various forms of immorality to be “rights” against which no one should even speak out. This is the reason why Cardinal Ratzinger has spoken of an “intolerant” secularism that begins by excluding religion from the public sphere and ends up so extending that public sphere that the individual conscience is left with no room for religious belief.
. . .

The case against secularization can be summed up as follows: secularism is itself a dogma, a form of sectarianism that by definition should not be allowed to rule the public sphere to the detriment of other viewpoints. Secularism, far from guaranteeing freedom of conscience, endangers conscience because it progressively disallows religious consciences from speaking out, while non-religious or anti-religious people do not labor under any similar disability. Secularism implicitly denies any real importance to religious matters, turning it entirely into a private matter or a matter of mere opinion. The Church supports a genuine freedom of conscience that gives ample space in the public sphere for the expression of different beliefs; however, religious beliefs must also have this right to free expression, and in predominantly Christian countries this Christian character must be respected by the state as the basis of the spiritual life of the nation, and as the default viewpoint from which legislative matters are considered.

Christ Himself expressed His faith at all times. He didn’t hide behind any sentimental notions of “keeping one’s faith a private matter” or political correctness. We should not do any less.

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Posted in Legal Analysis, News/Commentary

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