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Wednesday, Apr 25, 2018
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Tom Jackson Columns

Jackson: Finding room for God between church and state

The high holy days for the two religions integral to creating and sustaining the United States are upon us once more. For the faithful, Palm Sunday, Passover, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter lie ahead like stops along a familiar pilgrimage, promising ritual, reflection, sacrifice and, ultimately, triumph and celebration.

Much of what is good and right about America stems from this every-spring confluence of ancient customs, an eternally interwoven series of events that remind us that freedom is humankind’s natural condition, that the creator’s divine spark resides within each of us and that while all are summoned to high purpose, volunteering for duty is up to the individual.

Judeo-Christian tradition, interpreted through 18th Century Enlightenment philosophers more concerned with its meticulous moral code, justice-seeking and respect for self-determination than episodes of the miraculous, inspired the American Revolution, informed the writing of the Declaration of Independence and its codification in the Constitution and Bill of Rights and, even now, remains our essential invisible guiding hand.

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None of that changes just because courts banned organized prayer from the schoolhouse and allowed students who object to “under God” to sit out the Pledge of Allegiance. Nor does it change when courts get fussy about displays of the Ten Commandments in government buildings, or Christmas-season depictions of the Bethlehem stable on public grounds, or elected officials ordered to refrain from offering sectarian blessings at official events.

These and other judicial rulings in the past half-century owe much to an outsized respect for the “wall of separation” erected by President Thomas Jefferson’s quill in an 1802 letter to the Danbury (Conn.) Baptist Association. Given their own lavish religious practices within the government throughout the country’s early decades, the Founders almost certainly would have regarded the judiciary’s recent regard for the wall as overzealous.

So, apparently, did Congress a few years back when, in the first year of the Clinton administration (1993) it passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which prevents the federal government from “substantially burden[ing] a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.” Hobby Lobby’s objection to providing certain forms of birth control mandated by the Affordable Care Act, heard last month by the Supreme Court, hangs on RFRA.

It’s not hard to figure where Jefferson would come down.

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All that said, I concede a certain sympathy for judges called on to rule on the constitutionality of sectarian prayers that are part of official government proceedings. Where this occurs now, the phrase that most often scales and, indeed, may breech the wall is the commonplace “in Jesus’ name we pray.”

Any day now, the Supreme Court is expected to rule on (if not settle) that controversy — talk about first-world problems in a pluralistic society — in a case involving Greece, N.Y., where town council meetings begin with a prayer that almost always invokes Jesus. The plaintiffs — one Jewish, the other atheist — complained that this amounted to a governmental endorsement of Christianity.

Know who’s on the town’s side? The Obama administration, which cited Congress’ “unbroken history of the offering of prayer” that leans lopsidedly toward Christianity.

Meanwhile, commissioners in Carroll County, Md., northwest of Baltimore, recently bent to a judge’s contempt-of-court ruling blocking their practice of overtly Christian prayer.

Sorting out where to draw the line requires reasoning worthy of Solomon. Rule against sectarian prayer, and who decides what’s acceptable as a replacement? You’re going to have judicial review for every invocation? Restrict local governments to prayer that mentions God or a creator, are multi-theists the new Danbury Baptists? And what part of the Establishment Clause commands freedom from religion?

It’s not easy being part of the rational, respectful, accommodating faithful. But, as we are reminded this week, neither was what the God of Abraham required of the Israelites and Jesus, and the enduring examples of their sacrifices will instruct us, as they did the Founders, no matter what our highest court decides.

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