IFAS | Freedom Writer | February 1995 | digest.html

Reader's Digest errs on
church-state separation

By Barbara A. Simon, Esq.

Over the past few weeks several readers have sent us copies of an article printed in the December 1994 Reader's Digest. The article, condensed from The Theme is Freedom: Religion, Politics and the American Tradition by M. Stanton Evans, is titled "The Supreme Court Is Wrong About Religion." What infuriated our readers was that the article was filled with inaccuracies, yet there was no way to respond because Reader's Digest does not print letters to the editor. Reader's Digest boasts that it sells over 28 million copies in 17 languages monthly. When inaccuracies are published, each inaccuracy is multiplied by 28 million.

Evans wrote: "Over three decades ago the Supreme Court declared that prayer in the public schools was unconstitutional..." The Supreme Court has never declared prayer in the public school unconstitutional. What is unconstitutional is state-sponsored prayer in the public schools. Children are free to pray in public schools whenever they choose, provided that their right to pray does not interfere with the right of other students to learn.

Evans stated: "Was the First Amendment really intended to build a 'wall of separation' between church and state? History is clear: it was not." Evans is incorrect. The phrase "separation of church and state" was coined in the 17th century by the early Baptist leader Roger Williams. Both James Madison, who is known as the Father of the Constitution, and Thomas Jefferson used that phrase to describe the meaning of the religion clauses. In 1802, during Jefferson's presidency, Jefferson replied to a letter from the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut. In his letter, Jefferson declared that the American people, through the First Amendment, had erected a "wall of separation between church and state."

Evans believes that the Supreme Court, in interpreting the Constitution, should rely on the "Founding Father's intentions." The U.S. Constitution is an evolving document, which has grown with our nation. Because our Constitution is elastic, and not static, it has been able to withstand the test of time. Back in 1787 James Madison stated: "In framing a system which we wish to last for ages, we should not lose sight of the changes which the ages will produce." To understand what is meant by the First Amendment, it is not our Founding Father's intentions that are controlling, but the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The U.S. Supreme Court first adopted the phrase "separation of church and state" in the 1878 case Reynolds v. United States. The Court's majority opinion stated: "I contemplate with ... reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between church and state." The Court stated that Jefferson's term "wall of separation between church and state" "may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the [First] Amendment."

By providing misinformation Evans' article does a disservice to the readers of Reader's Digest.

© 1998 Institute for First Amendment Studies, Inc.