“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
–The First Amendment
The words are old, the First Amendment having been adopted in 1791 along with the rest of the Bill of Rights. But even today, whenever they’re read, the effect is the same. The heart beats just a little faster.
There is a majesty about those words, not just in their grand sweep, but in the fine judgment one can sense behind them. Note the carefully chosen phrases, the balance and comprehension of its language, broad yet focused. It was as if the founders knew they were writing not just for their time but ours, as if they realized they were founding. A new order of the ages, as it still says on the dollar bill.
The constitution they put together would prove to be that rarest of cases in history and literature: a work of art produced by committee. (The King James Bible is another.) The constitution they crafted was, and is, about more than law. A mix of the mundane and visionary, it expressed great principles while dealing with practical details — like terms of office and tax policy. Complex and simple, general and precise at the same time.
What a mix of idealism and practicality the founders bequeathed in the Constitution, much like the country and society it was meant for.
William Ewart Gladstone said it. He was the 19th-century statesman who alternated as Queen Victoria’s first minister with the great Disraeli. He once described the U.S. Constitution as “the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.”
For once Mr. Gladstone, an orator known for his lengthy and labored flourishes, may have committed an understatement.
Gladstone’s tribute to the foresight of the founders was borne out the other day by a unanimous decision of the current Supreme Court of the United States. All nine justices agreed that, no, the federal government may not tell churches whom to hire and fire as teachers charged with transmitting the faith to the next generation.
All the justices had to do was read the crystal-clear language of the First Amendment. It specifies that Congress shall make no law even respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
In short: State, hands off Church.
And not just hands off, but stand clear. Don’t even come close to crossing the line between church and state.
The teacher who had challenged her church (and the Constitution) asserted she couldn’t be fired because an antidiscrimination law protected her job. And it wasn’t as if she were a minister acting under the church’s authority and discipline. She claimed she wasn’t exercising any religious authority as a teacher at a church school.
Even though she had undergone religious training for her post of “lay teacher,” had agreed to be a “called teacher,” and was commissioned as a minister by her church. And, oh yes, she’d also claimed a ministerial housing allowance on her taxes.
But, the teacher explained, she led chapel services and taught religion classes only sometimes. The rest of the time she taught secular subjects like math. She estimated that the “religious” part of her day took up only 45 minutes.
How modern. As if someone who’s supposed to be an exemplar of her faith need be religious only part-time. Chief Justice John Roberts, speaking for a unanimous court, put it well: Being a religious leader is not a matter “that can be resolved by a stopwatch.”
Next we’ll be told that a judge is a judge only while sitting on the bench. Or that an officer and gentleman need be one only in uniform.
Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, for following the simple yet profound language of the First Amendment. Its words have yet to be bettered by those who would add all kinds of footnotes, exceptions, interpretations and complications to the text.
Naturally, the teacher was supported by this administration. This administration also seems to believe that under the Constitution the president of the United States can make recess appointments even if Congress isn’t in recess at the time. He’ll decide when Congress is in session, thank you. So much for the separation of powers, whether legislative and executive or, in this latest landmark case, church and state.
This welcome decision is but the latest round in a continuing case that might rightly be styled Obama v. Constitution.
The strangest objection to the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in this case came from an organization with a noble name, Americans United for Separation of Church and State. That’s precisely the principle this ruling exemplified.
Maybe this group assumes that the purpose of the First Amendment is only to prevent the church from interfering with the state. But the Amendment is just as concerned with preventing the state from interfering with the church. And with its right to decide who will teach its faith.
The good people at Americans United for Separation of Church and State might want to go back and reread the words of the First Amendment. Those words never fail to clarify thought. And elevate the spirit.
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