From public displays of the Ten Commandments and nativity scenes to the "under God" phrase in the pledge of allegiance and school vouchers for private schools, the role of religion in society and politics regularly raises questions about the intentions and religious assumptions of those who wrote the U.S. Constitution.
In disputes over the past six decades, lawyers, theologians, and others have cited the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling from 1947 in the case of Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Township, claimed by many legal analysts as having the greatest influence on the contemporary church-state debate.
This Friday, February 9, on the 60th anniversary of this seminal case, the Princeton Theological Seminary will host a symposium to re-examine the issues in light of the Bush Administration's Faith-Based Initiative, restrictions on the public funding of religious institutions, and theological and legal perspectives on the future of church and state law.
"We believe faith and citizenship must engage each other mutually and thoughtfully," said Hui Chen, dean of continuing education, an ordained Presbyterian minister and an attorney. "Our hope for this symposium is to provide an interdisciplinary forum for that engagement."
Symposium participants a panel of prominent legal, political, ethical, and theological leaders are well placed to shed light on the issue.
As senior counsel to the deputy attorney general at the U.S. Department of Justice, Carl H. Esbeck, the Isabelle Wade and Paul C. Lyda Professor of Law at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law, helped initiate the Bush Administration's Faith-Based and Community Initiative program.
Joseph P. Viteritti, the Blanche D. Blank Professor of Public Policy at Hunter College, CUNY, and author of Can Religion and Democracy Coexist? American Discord from the Public School to the Public Square (Princeton University Press, 2007), has advised city school superintendents in New York, Boston, and San Francisco, and given expert testimony in the Zelman v. Simmons-Harris school voucher case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002.
Expressing her own thoughts on the matter in an interview by e-mail this week, seminary professor Nancy J. Duff commented: "One of my key concerns is that there are Christians who deny that the writers of the Constitution ever intended a clear separation of Church and State. This denial and the subsequent attempts to infuse Christian beliefs into public statements and policies raise questions from the perspective of whether certain actions, such as faith-based initiatives and posting the Ten Commandments in the public realm, are constitutional (I believe they are not), and whether the integrity of Christian faith is being diminished when one allows Christian language and beliefs to be co-opted for political purposes (I believe that it is)."
Also an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church, Ms. Duff, who is Stephen Colwell Associate Professor of Christian Ethics, teaches and has written extensively on the subject of the ethics of the Ten Commandments, and is the author of "Locating God in all the Wrong Places: the Second Commandment and American Politics," among other publications. "I will argue that the separation of Church and State is an essential aspect of the U.S. Constitution and that Christians should honor such separation out of respect for the rights of all citizens, but also to maintain the integrity of the Christian faith itself," she wrote, adding that she did not speak for other symposium participants or the symposium organizers.
As a Ewing Township taxpayer, Arch R. Everson challenged a New Jersey law that allowed local school boards to reimburse parents for the costs of transporting their children to and from private and parochial schools. After losing his case in the New Jersey Court of Errors and Appeals, Mr. Everson appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court on purely federal constitutional grounds.
The U.S. Supreme Court was asked whether the New Jersey law violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by allowing indirect aid to religion.
The February 10, 1947 landmark decision ruled that the New Jersey law did not violate the Constitution. The court was divided 5-4. Justice Black argued that services like bussing and police and fire protection for parochial schools are "separate and so indisputably marked off from the religious function" and that for the state to provide them would not violate the First Amendment. The law did not pay money to parochial schools, nor did it support them directly in anyway. It was simply a law enacted as a "general program" to assist parents of all religions with getting their children to school.
Wall of Separation
While the phrase "wall of separation of church and state" is not used in the U.S. Constitution, the justices in the Everson case borrowed the phrase from a letter by Thomas Jefferson written on January 1, 1802, 10 months after his presidential inauguration, to the Danbury Baptist Association in Danbury, Conn.
Referring to the First Amendment, Mr. Jefferson wrote "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."
Some, including the late Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, criticized the Everson ruling for its reliance on quotations and views from Jefferson.
Following a presentation summarizing the Everson case and the issues it raises, a panel of prominent legal, political, ethical, and theological leaders will openly discuss the current challenges faced by the judiciary system.
In addition to Professors Esbeck, Viteritti, and Duff, panelists will include: T. Jeremy Gunn, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief; and Marci A. Hamilton, the Paul R. Verkuil Professor of Public Law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University, a former clerk to Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, and author of God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law (Cambridge University Press 2005).
Open to the public, the symposium will take place in the Center of Continuing Education (Erdman Hall, Cooper Conference Room and Erdman Art Studio, and the Adams House Living Room) on the campus of the Princeton Theological Seminary, 20 Library Place, on Friday, February 9, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Registration (with priorities given to professionals in the fields of ministry, law, and education) is $120, $60 (for students). Lunch is $10. For more information, call (800) 622-6767, ext. 7990, or (609) 497-7990, or visit www.ptsem.edu/ce.
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