IFAS | Freedom Writer | November/December 1991 | simonds.html

Separation of church and state on trial

In his How to Elect Christians to Public Office, Dr. Robert L. Simonds states, "The separation of church and state is another 'myth' the ACLU, NEA and NOW have sold the public." Robert Simonds heads the Orange County, California-based Citizens for Excellence in Education, and the National Association of Christian Educators. Apparently, Simonds is willing to put his money where his mouth is. In an audio tape obtained by the Freedom Writer, Simonds offered to pay anyone $1000 if they could pro duce a single document in the recorded history of the United States which mentions the phrase "separation of church and state."

"Here it is, a thousand dollars," Simonds said, "if you can show me one single document in America the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Northwest Passage [sic], you name it, the Mayflower Compact, any of them. They never, ever, ever, even mentioned, or wrote down once, in all of our history, the phrase 'separation of church and state.' Not once!"

In November, the Freedom Writer challenged Simonds, maintaining that there is a separation of church and state in the U.S., and demanded that he pay up. Simonds accepted our challenge in a letter dated November 12, 1991.

There are, of course, written documents in the recorded history of the United States of America which attest to a "separation of church and state," and in which the words, "a wall of separation between church and state" appear.

In 1785, a proposal was made to tax citizens in order to pay Christian teachers. Somewhat surprisingly, many religious organizations opposed the bill. Presbyterian churches petitioned the legislature to leave them "free from the intrusive hand of the civil magistrate." Rockingham County evangelicals wrote, "Any legislative body that takes upon themselves the power that never was committed to them by God, nor can be by man, [is dangerous]." Fundamentalists declared in their petition that "religion and all its duties being of divine origin and of a nature wholly distinct from the secular affairs of the public society ought not to be made the object of human legislation. For the discharge of the duties of religion every man is to account for himself as an individual in a future state and ought not to be under the direction of influence of any human laws." In essence, though not using those precise words, they all argued for a separation of church and state.

As a result of these responses, Virginia enacted the precursor of the First Amendment's religion clauses in its Statute of Religious Liberty. Drafted by Thomas Jefferson and promoted by James Madison (who was the father of the Bill of Rights), the statute laid the foundation for our Constitution's separation of church and state.

In 1802, Thomas Jefferson affirmed the church/state separation principle in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, in Connecticut. This important historical document sheds much light on Jefferson's understanding of the First Amendment, written by his friend and close associate, James Madison.

"Believing with you that religion is a matter which has solely between man and his God that he owes no account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state."

"Every serious historian traces the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the events in Virginia in 1785," according to Robert S. Peck, First Amendment attorney for the national ACLU, "which is why Jefferson's characterization of the meaning of the First Amendment as establishing 'a wall of separation between church and state' has been taken to be so authoritative."

Furthermore, in 1878, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Reynolds v. United States, incorporated Jefferson's words concerning "a wall of separation between church and state." That document states: "In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishmen t of religion by law was intended to erect 'a wall of separation between church and state."

The principle of church/state separation was advanced in later cases. In Everson v. Board of Education (1947), Associate Justice Hugo Black, writing for the majority, wrote, "The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach."

In Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), the Court established a three-prong test to determine if a governmental action is neutral toward religion. First, government institutions or legislation must have a secular purpose; second, the primary effect must be on e that neither advances nor inhibits religion; and third, there must not be an excessive governmental entanglement with religion. This principle was clarified further by Associate Justice Sandra Day in Lynch v. Donnelli (1984). Justice O'Connor wro te, "What is crucial is that a governmental practice not have the effect of communicating a message of government endorsement or disapproval of religion."

As Simonds listed several documents, including the "Northwest Passage," (although he probably in- tended to say the Northwest Ordinance), and invited listeners to "name it," meaning an historical document in which the phrase "separation of church and state" is used, the Freedom Writer believes it has met Simonds' challenge. Furthermore, there is virtually no difference between the phrase "separation between church and state," and the phrase "separation of church and state."

The Orange County Register (November 29, 1991) said in a front page story that "a lawsuit would draw widespread attention to how deeply the principle [of church/state separation] is embedded in U.S. history."

Simonds' organization is often criticized by mainstream groups such as the National Education Association and People for the American Way, but right-wing groups readily praise his work. Steve Sheldon, executive director of the California-based Coalition for Traditional Values, said, "Bob is one of the good guys, he's doing important work."

When asked his opinion of the Institute for First Amendment Studies publisher of the Freedom Writer, Sheldon said, "Obviously, they're about 180 degrees from us on most issues, but, compared to People for the American Way, we find their materials q uite substantive." "You could say," he continued, "People for the American Way provides the sizzle and the Institute provides the steak."

Although Simonds accepted the Freedom Writer's challenge to his statements, he said our claims are "spurious," and that if we did not prevail in court, he would pursue a harassment suit against us. "I wish you luck, in all sincerity," he said, "I k now how hard you work at promoting this false concept [the separation of church and state]."

Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz is a strong proponent of the separation of church and state. Upon learning the details of this case, he told the Freedom Writer, "You're absolutely right, and I'm completely supportive."

© 1998 Institute for First Amendment Studies, Inc.