The Role of Religion in the Public Forum by Michael James

Over the last 60 years or more, we have been engaged ever more deeply in a national debate about the role of religion in our society, in our private businesses, and especially in our public institutions. To frame this discussion properly, we need to provide some brief historical context and remind ourselves of some key phrases, their sources, and their meanings.


In the summer of 1787, delegates from each of the loosely federated states (except Rhode Island) gathered in Philadelphia to create a new form of government. Their objective was to strengthen the central government. However, the delegates also wanted the states to retain power to govern themselves. Most importantly, this uniquely qualified group of delegates wanted to safeguard the liberties of the people.

In the process of creating a new form of government, never before seen in the history of man, they lost focus. A new federal government was founded, but the liberties of the people were not adequately protected. This became a stumbling block for some of the delegates. George Mason of Virginia was active in the convention and many of the clauses bear his stamp. However, by the end of the summer, he refused to sign the document because it did not include a bill of rights for the people.


George Mason had long been an influential figure in Virginia politics. He wrote the Virginia Constitution (over proposals from others, including Thomas Jefferson) and he prepared the first draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776. His prominent fight for a bill of rights led James Madison to introduce twelve amendments to the Constitution in the first Congress in 1789. These amendments were based on Mason’s Declaration of Rights. In 1791, ten of the amendments were ratified by the states and they became known as the Bill of Rights. While the Constitution limited the federal government, the Bill of Rights added further restrictions to protect State sovereignty and individual liberty.


Thomas Jefferson had many notable contributions to the founding of our nation, but he did not attend or participate in the Constitutional Convention. James Madison is known as the Father of the Constitution; he created the Virginia Plan, the foundation of the document. George Washington presided over the convention and was indispensable to the procedures. But Jefferson wasn’t there. That is important to note since he is the author of one of the terms we will consider.


The Establishment Clause is found in the first amendment to the Constitution (part of the Bill of Rights). It says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Note the limitation is on Congress and the passage of legislation. It is not a restriction on individuals or other government entities, such as schools or agencies. This clause does not restrict reference to God in our pledge of allegiance, on our money, or in our schools. None of those meet the standard of a Congressional legislative act.

The Free Exercise Clause is also found in the first amendment. It completes the Establishment Clause with these additional words: “… or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Each person may exercise his/her own freedom of conscience. They may believe what they want, they may worship whom or what they want, and they may act in accordance with those convictions. It even seems to allow for the violation of some laws if those violations are for religious reasons. For example, “conscientious objectors” chose to exercise their personal convictions and were justifiably excused from military service during the Vietnam War.

Separation of Church and State is traced back to Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States at the time, in a letter addressed to the Danbury Baptist Association. The Danbury Baptists had sent a letter to Jefferson expressing concern over the lack of explicit protection of religious liberty in their state constitution. They wrote: “Our sentiments are uniformly on the side of religious liberty: that Religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals, that no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious opinions, [and] that the legitimate power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor.”

In response, Jefferson cited the first amendment of the US Constitution, and added: “thus building a wall of separation between church and State.” Context is vital to understanding. In this case, the concern was religious freedom, and the response guaranteed protection of these rights from the potential abuses of government.


Jefferson’s metaphor was unfortunate. Though he clearly intended to convey that government should have no influence over religious beliefs or practices, the “wall” of separation has been deliberately misinterpreted to claim that religious convictions cannot influence public policy or government. Jefferson said no such thing.


The purpose of the Constitution was to define and limit the role of government so people would be free to pursue happiness as agents unto themselves.

It was not written to limit the             rights of the people.

Instead of a “wall”, perhaps a better metaphor might be a one-way valve which allows influence from religion to government to travel freely while shutting off influence from government to religion.


Those who oppose religious influence in the public square often claim we cannot legislate morality. But in truth all laws are rooted in moral judgments. Listen to all sides of a debate and the message is what each of them thinks is right or wrong. Insider trading laws exist because we collectively believe it is wrong for one investor to have an unfair advantage over other investors. Immigration laws reflect what we think is right or wrong in how we deal with those who want to enter our country. Even traffic laws are designed to allow us to safely use the infrastructure with courtesy and fairness to all drivers.

Every one of us has an idea in our minds of what is right and what is wrong. And each of us should have a seat at the negotiation table so we can have our say. There are those who want to exclude those with religious convictions from the public forum so they can propose their own form of morality without opposition. However, religious entities have just as much right to advocate for their values as those who have no allegiance to any religion.

Advocacy is different that compulsion. I do not know of any legislation in our nation’s history which was passed by a church. Churches have successfully advocated for their moral opinions, but so have those who belong to no church. Churches should not be forced to yield the debate to others without having their say. The Constitution guarantees that right and Jefferson never said anything to dispute it.


Our nation was founded by a people who were fleeing religious persecution. In a few generations, we have taken religious liberty for granted and are letting it slip from our grasp by those who would once again persecute us for our allegiance to God, the very being to whom the Founders gave credit for the creation of such a nation. Regardless of your personal beliefs, stay active in the public forum and let your voice be heard.

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