Robin Smith: The wall of separation

Robin Smith: The wall of separation

September 17th, 2012 By Robin Smith in Opinion Columns

The Hamilton County Commission, Ridgeland High School and now the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga have been confronted by a group from Wisconsin, The Freedom From Religion Foundation. The FFRF, citing the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, demands that prayer cease within the confines of their events or meetings.

Let's understand what that the First Amendment actually says: "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." While the weapon of the anti-Christian crowd is the first part, the "Establishment Clause," the entire text clearly notes that governments should neither establish a religion nor prohibit its practice.

As the FFRP and others claim infringement of their constitutional rights, the citation of the "separation of church and state" as referenced in President Thomas Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists often accompanies a revision of the First Amendment. The Baptists fought for this "separation," but it wasn't hostile to religion or seeking the abandonment of faith in society.

Jefferson's letter to the Connecticut Baptists reflected a quote by the colonies' first Baptist, Roger Williams. Williams, a strong advocate against government intrusion of religion, was the first to use the statement "wall of separation." You see, in many of the original states, there was an "established" church supported by taxes, protected by laws and enforced by the jailing and punishment of dissenters. As a result, separation of church and state was badly needed.

Of the original 13 colonies, seven states had governments that were not neutral to one's denomination. Connecticut and Massachusetts were "Congregational" (Puritan and Calvanist), while Georgia, New York, North and South Carolina, Virginia and Maryland recognized the Church of England, the Mother Church of the worldwide Anglican Communion, as the state church.

We tend to assume Jefferson's letter of 1802 was an unsolicited proclamation of constitutional protection from religion. Instead, it was his response to a group of faithful believers who refused to pay taxes to support the organizational acts of another belief system and were jailed for failing to do so. Some Baptists in Connecticut even lost their property to confiscation by the state.

The Danbury Baptists' letter that triggered the response from Thomas Jefferson stated, "Our sentiments are uniformly on the side of religious liberty ... and that no man ought to suffer in name, person or effects on account of his religious opinions. ..." The believers of the Danbury Baptist Association were simply petitioning within the actual meaning and intent of the First Amendment to freely practice their own faith without penalty from a government.

Interestingly, Jefferson's letter to the Baptist Association at Chesterfield, Va., penned on Nov. 21, 1808, is not referenced in demands for freedom from the anti-religious. The president wrote, "We have solved by fair experiment, the great and interesting question whether freedom of religion is compatible with order in government, and obedience to the laws. And we have experienced the quiet as well as the comfort which results from leaving everyone to profess freely and openly those principles of religion which are inductions of his own reason, and the serious convictions of his own inquiries." The Jefferson and Baptist "wall of separation" supports an individual's right to worship freely but has never been part of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution or any of the original documents quoted in an effort to end worship.

The County Commission, Ridgeland High and UTC have never forced participation of prayer with threat of imprisonment or loss of property. Yet, if I refuse to withhold taxes to fund abortion. ... Nah. I'm sure that's different.

Robin Smith, a consultant at Rivers Edge Alliance, is a wife and mother living in Hixson. She served as the Tennessee Republican Party chairman from 2007-2009.