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David Brittan, Editor

the issue

Sorry, Wrong Religion

The separation of church and state rests on two clauses of the First Amendment, 16 words in all: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. Modern readers might pause over establishment (which in 1789 meant “official state sanction”). But otherwise, James Madison’s intent could not have been plainer: there is to be no official religion, and citizens shall be free to practice any religious faith or none.

The argument is sometimes made that because the framers of the Constitution were Christians, or at least Deists, they assumed their religion would enjoy a privileged status. But in fact they did not. Madison, an Anglican, wrote in 1785, in condemnation of a proposed tax to support religious education: “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects?” Thomas Jefferson spelled it out even clearer. The Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom (1786), of which he was the author, equally protected “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.” Religious beliefs have no bearing on civil rights, he wrote, and likewise “our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, more than our opinions in physics or geometry.”

Ellery Schempp, A62, the subject of our cover story, has opinions in physics aplenty. He is a physicist. But it is his position on civil rights that we want to tell you about. As a teenager in the 1950s, he recognized that the First Amendment’s “establishment” clause was violated daily by the Pennsylvania schools—and took action.

There weren’t too many Ellery Schempps back in the McCarthy era. Nor are there many today, for that matter. Two thirds of Americans believe the country’s founders intended the United States to be a Christian nation, according to a poll by the nonpartisan First Amendment Center. More than half believe that the Constitution, the very instrument that protects them from official religion, established said Christian nation. Who, in this climate, will take a stand for separation of church and state?

Not the next president of the United States, certainly. Some 69 percent of Americans want a president who has strong religious beliefs, according to a recent Pew Forum survey (just so long as he or she isn’t a Muslim, 45 percent hasten to add). In response, the candidates—some of whom presumably have read the Constitution—are straining to outdo one another on Christian God-talk (which efforts are scientifically tracked by the God-O-Meter at a website called Beliefnet). Where this all leads is a destination no less to be feared than it was in the 1780s: state religion. If someday you find you can’t teach school or get a government contract because you go to the wrong church, don’t blame me. I’m voting for Schempp.

  © 2007 Tufts University Tufts Publications, 80 George St., Medford, MA 02155