Monday, August 25, 2003

I wish Dahlia Lithwick and Alan Keyes weren't speaking past each other. Lithwick, in Slate, tries to summarize established legal precedents on the issue of church-state separation. But she refers to what "the state" can do regarding establishment of religion. Keyes, in a speech in defense of Judge Roy Moore, says the federal government can't establish a religion but any state or community bloody well can if it feels like it.

There might be states in which they require a religious test or oath of office. There might be states in which they have established churches, where subventions are given to schools and so forth to teach the Bible. There might be places where you and I might disagree with the religion some folks wanted to put in place over their communities. But guess what the Founders believed? They believed that people in their states and localities had the right to live under institutions they would put together to govern themselves according to their faith....

We have the right to live in communities--and that means the people in Alabama can live in this state. And you know how come I know that this is so, that the First Amendment didn't intend to destroy this right, that in fact such communities could exist, such states could exist? Because at the time the First Amendment was passed, at the time they put it on the books in the first place, there were a majority of states in the United States--at the time, the former colonies--where there were religious tests and oaths of office, where there were, in fact, established churches.

This is a scary argument. It also might be a persuasive argument, especially to the many people in this country who are very pro-religion and not particularly focused on religious pluralism. Quite a number of these people aren't conservative or otherwise intolerant -- they may well have just grown up in religiously homogeneous communities, or they feel religion is like vitamins, something everyone could use a lot of, something you'd be foolish to deny yourself under any circumstances. These people don't get this fight, and I'm afraid our side doesn't work hard enough at trying to explain why the law is on our side and why establishment of religion is bad for society.

So, Dahlia, how about a follow-up column on what Keyes is saying -- why can't a state or a community have a state religion? No contempt for people who agree with him, please -- just give us the legal precedents straight. Call it "Church-State Separation for Dummies." A lot of people need this stuff spelled out, starting with the most basic information.

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