The Wages of the Wall of Separation

The Oklahoma Supreme Court’s recent ruling that a 6-foot tall granite monument of the Ten Commandments must be removed from the state capitol is certainly understandable. The state’s constitutional ban against the use of public funds or property to benefit a religion, as the court found, was violated by the placement of the monument on government grounds.

Still and all, there is something disturbing about the fact that the state was sued in the first place, and that a symbolic reminder that there is a Divine Authority will no longer occupy a prominent place in Oklahoma City.

The recent decision came after years of controversy and legal battles. Many Oklahomans, including Governor Mary Fallin and many state lawmakers, wanted the monument to remain where it is. Some state legislators have criticized the ruling and announced that they plan to try to repeal the section of the state’s constitution the court cited in its decision. A statewide vote would be required for that.

The issue of whether the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which forbids government from favoring a religion, applies not only to federal authorities but to the states — whether, in other words, a state might be able to declare an official religion — is, obviously, a charged one.

Polls have shown that large numbers of Americans would like their own home state (in fact, the nation itself, which would clearly be unconstitutional) to have an official religion. (Needless to say, it’s not Judaism that they are suggesting.)

Even Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas argued, in a 2004 opinion, that the purpose of the Establishment Clause was only to protect the states from having Congress impose a religion on them, not to proscribe states from making their own decisions about religion.

But that is a fringe view. The High Court made clear in a landmark ruling in 1947 that the Establishment Clause does indeed apply to states — and it has underscored this holding repeatedly since.

In 2012, the American Civil Liberties Union sued North Carolina over sectarian prayers offered at a county’s meetings, and state legislators introduced a bill to declare an official state religion. The bill, though, was quickly dropped from consideration.

A less fringe view though, if not the prevailing one, is that of Justice Antonin Scalia. Last year, he told students at Colorado Christian University near Denver that the idea that even the federal government “must be neutral, not only between religions, but between religion and non-religion” is “a lie.”

Mr. Scalia, who has said that traditional religious virtues “are essential” for society, also noted that “we do G-d honor in our pledge of allegiance, in all our public ceremonies. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

“It is in the best of American traditions,” he continued, exhorting the students to not “let anybody tell you otherwise. I think we have to fight that tendency of the secularists to impose it on all of us through the Constitution.”

It’s “utterly absurd,” he reiterated, to suggest that “the separation of church and state means that the government cannot favor religion over non-religion.”

Indeed, the second paragraph of the United States Declaration of Independence, whose 239th anniversary was just celebrated, speaks of how all men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…”

And American presidents, including the current one, have not shied from referencing the Creator in statements and speeches delivered in their role as chief executive. In his first inaugural address, George Washington offered his “fervent supplications to that A-mighty Being Who rules over the universe, Who presides in the councils of nations, and Whose providential aids can supply every defect,” and asserted that “No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of man more than those of the United States.”

“The propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained…”

Thomas Jefferson, for his part, the source of the idea of a “wall of separation between church and state” that the nation’s highest court has interpreted most strictly, wrote in “Notes on the State of Virginia”: “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of G-d?”

American jurisprudence, as it has evolved over the years, may indeed require that religious symbols of any sort have no place on government property. But we cannot help but feel that decisions like the recent one by the Oklahoma Supreme Court nevertheless come with a considerable, and lamentable, downside.