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FIRST-PERSON: Religion’s place in the public square

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (BP)–America was founded on the pursuit of religious liberty, including the liberty to acknowledge God and to pray in the public square.

This liberty originates in higher law, or “the laws of nature and of nature’s God,” as the Declaration of Independence puts it. In the words of Rabbi Daniel Lapin, the founders modeled themselves “upon God’s ancient people” and “wrote what they considered to be a modern-day interpretation of the basic biblical principles of government.”

Those principles demand a place for religious expression in the public square. Unfortunately, radical advocates have long been trying to rewrite the Constitution by making the First Amendment say something it doesn’t. The First Amendment plainly forbids the creation of a national denomination, because that would be an “establishment of religion.” It says nothing about the so-called “separation of church and state.”

Even those who agitate to remove the Ten Commandments monument at the capitol here in Arizona and the now-famous plaques with Hebrew Scriptures at the Grand Canyon will admit — when pressed — that the so-called “separation of church and state” is not in the Constitution.

What did the founders do and say to make us think religion has a place in the public square?

Let us consider General George Washington. When Washington received a copy of the Declaration of Independence from the Continental Congress, he immediately issued orders that “The Colonels or commanding officers of each regiment are directed to procure Chaplains accordingly; persons of good Characters and exemplary lives.”

The Declaration which motivated Washington’s appointment of chaplains contains four references to God: God as the Creator and the source of liberty (“all men are endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights”), God the law giver (“law of nature and of nature’s God”), God the ultimate judge (“the Supreme Judge of the World”) and God as the king above all earthly rulers, as the Sovereign (“Divine Providence”).

After he led the army to victory, Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention and was then elected our first president under the Constitution.

At Washington’s first inauguration in New York City, Washington took the oath of office on a Bible opened to Genesis 49 and 50, and added the words repeated by every president since, “So help me God.” He told his audience at Federal Hall that, “It would be peculiarly improper to omit, in this first official act, my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations.”

Washington then went very publicly to pray at St. Paul’s Chapel before he attended inaugural festivities. Eight years later, in his farewell address, he said, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports.”

Washington, as perhaps the leading founding father, demonstrated repeatedly that religion has a legitimate place in the public square. The hue and cry over the Ten Commandments monument and the plaques would seem ludicrous to him and to all who served with him.

In light of that history, why would anyone object to posting “Sing to God, sing praises to his name; lift up a song to him who rides upon the clouds his name is the Lord, exult before him,” at the Grand Canyon?

If religion in general is the thing that keeps radicals up worrying late at night, then why haven’t they also demanded that the Hindu names for canyon locations — Brahma Temple, Vishnu Temple, Siva Temple — be changed? Maybe for the same reason they want to banish the Ten Commandments from the capitol grounds — they hate orthodox religious expressions in the public square.

Remember, the monument is one of 20 similar monuments that celebrate Arizona’s history, culture and diversity. Surely, the Ten Commandments monument adds diversity. And what about the Arizona state motto, “Ditat Deus,” or “God Enriches.” No doubt the demand to change the motto will come soon.

Why would any irreligious person care about the monument on Wesley-Bolin Plaza? Perhaps they should follow the advice so freely doled out by the radicals like the ACLU, who want child pornography protected as free speech, to “just change the channel” and turn away from the monument.

Perhaps we need a little more accurate history about the so-called “separation of church and state.” In the early 1800s, many of the original states had churches sanctioned by state governments. These were “established churches,” and because they were a state matter they were not forbidden in the U.S. Constitution.

It took a former Ku Klux Klansman turned Supreme Court Justice, Hugo Black, to move the so-called “separation of church and state” into common jurisprudence, which he accomplished in 1947 in Everson v. Board of Education. As a committed Klansman, Black surely must have participated in the Klan’s oath of allegiance, to “most zealously … shield and preserve … (the) separation of church and state….” Klan doctrine is not a good way to interpret the U.S. Constitution.

A free and just society recognizes that freedom of speech and religion applies to public religious expression as well as to private. Our founding fathers knew this, as did most previous generations. Forgetting the hard-won lessons of the past is, in our time, freedom’s greatest threat.

We will lose our liberties if we don’t fight. We’ll lose when we give into all the ACLU’s demands. We’ll lose when we quit singing God Bless America, or when we take In God We Trust off our currency. We’ll lose when we return to the morally and legally repugnant practice of issuing governmental licenses to clergymen and their printers, as the English did here in the 1700s and as totalitarian regimes still do.

Religion should be booted from the public square only if we prefer tyranny to liberty.
Alan Sears is president of Alliance Defense Fund, religious liberty legal alliance based in Scottsdale, Ariz. This column originally appeared in The Arizona Republic Aug. 17.

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  • Alan Sears