STAMP OUT separation of church & state

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ST PAUL PIONEER PRESS 
Feb. 1, 1997

Some powerful conservative Christians want to mess with the U.S. Constitution in order to reach into our lives and our faith.

First, they tried to make demands on government officials for such things as school prayer. It was the kind of brute force approach that says if you don't get what you want by asking nicely, you simply get a great big hammer and start pounding on the thing. Fortunately, it didn't work.

So they reorganized and decided they would attack the First Amendment, which has been interpreted to mean that government cannot reach into a religion for good or ill and no religion can control government.

The one statement that troubles conservative Christians the most is a line written by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to a group of Baptists in Connecticut in 1801. The state religion there at the time was Congregationalism. Baptists were a persecuted bunch and, therefore, very concerned that the government and the state religion both keep their hands off Baptist doctrine.

So when Jefferson was elected president, the Baptists in Danbury, Conn., wrote to the president and said, basically, that they liked his views on freedom of religion and hoped he would not budge.

Jefferson wrote back and included this line: ``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 legislative 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.''

The letter to the Danbury Baptists was concise and carefully written. Jefferson was a strict separationist, according to an article by Derek H. Davis in the Seventh-day Adventist magazine, Liberty. Davis is the director of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University.

But some conservative Christians maintain the letter was hastily written and did not clearly represent Jefferson's views. They say Jefferson's words have been twisted by constitutional scholars.

Pat Robertson, for example, says Jefferson was angry that the founders had included the First Amendment establishment clause in the Constitution. Robertson says Jefferson was angry and was really saying that the founders had built a wall of separation between church and state.

James Dobson maintains that Jefferson used the phrase in only one letter and that it referred only to government reaching into religion. However, speaking against traditional interpretation, Dobson maintains that it does not protect government from religion.

You may wonder why the Seventh-day Adventists, a fairly conservative group, would not join with the likes of Pat Robertson and James Dobson. They won't, because in the past, they have felt the sting of persecution. And anytime that happens, they know the law is on their side.

It's always the powerful and wealthy who want to interpret the First Amendment in a way that gives them more power and, subsequently, more wealth. Robertson's ``700 Club'' and Dobson's Focus on the Family have millions to spend on campaigns to promote their views. The Seventh-day Adventists, even as one of the most successful American sects, have very little money to spend on such campaigns.

That First Amendment establishment clause protects all religions, not just the wealthy and powerful. It is an example of the genius of the U.S. Constitution and our protection from both governments and religions that would seek to oppress us.

Pray that never changes. If it does, it's time to hide in the woods because both governments and religions can be brutal opponents, especially if there are laws giving them control over people's faith.

Clark Morphew

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Separation of Church & State = Freedom of Speech Except for Churches