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Book Review : Repairing the Battered Wall Between Church and State

December 15, 1986|JEFFREY ALLEN | Allen is executive director of the California Bicentennial Commission on the United States Constitution. and

The Establishment Clause: Religion and the First Amendment by Leonard W. Levy (Macmillan: $14.95)

As we approach the bicentennial anniversary of the signing of the Constitution, one of the most significant and controversial issues facing America is the relationship between church and state.

Leonard Levy has gone back to the colonial days of our country to determine the founding fathers' views on the "establishment of religion." Separation between church and state was violated, they believed, not only through a single state-supported or sanctioned denomination, but through any government or state financial aid that advanced one, several or all sects. Therefore, Levy concludes, today's non-preferentialists (those who believe that non-discriminatory aid to religion is constitutional) are in error.

While Levy acknowledges that "the wall of separation (between church and state) ". . . leaks just a little at the seams," he believes that history has made the concept "real"; as a result, he writes, the wall continues to stand. I find three major problems with Levy's book. First, his conclusion that a complete absence of religion does not mean irreligion; second, his belief that we are not obliged to follow the original intent of the Founders, and third, the lumping of all who disagree with Levy on these points into the non-preferentialist category.

Defining Right and Wrong

Levy strongly feels that an absence of religion does not necessarily mean hostility or indifference to religion. He may be right if one's religion has only to do with where one worships, who gives the sermons and whether one believes in baptism by immersion, sprinkling or other rituals.

Religion, however, involves much more than this. It helps define right and wrong. If religion cannot be taught in the public schools, for example, how can a teacher correct a student caught lying, stealing or cheating? Problems of teen-age pregnancy, drug use and even murder on today's campuses might illustrate that not enough religion is being taught in the schools.

Specific doctrines of specific sects should not be taught or advanced in public institutions, but in my opinion the self-evident truths that there is a creator, that the creator has revealed a system of ethics and that the creator holds us responsible for how we interact with each other most certainly should be.

Power of Supreme Court

With regard to the importance of the Founders' original intent, Levy says, "We should not want the ban on establishments of religion to mean only what it meant in 1789 or only what its framers intended. . . . We are not bound by the wisdom of the framers." It is this type of reasoning that makes our system of government no longer a "government of the people" but rather a government of the Supreme Court. Certainly times change and the government ought to also. The changes, however, should be made by the people, through their representatives, and not by a majority of the Supreme Court just because they feel it is time for a change.

Because I feel that we have an obligation to follow the original intent of the Founders until we change the Constitution through amendment, and that there is an appropriate place for religion in public institutions does not mean that I am a non-preferentialist. I am not. I do not believe it right that government support or sanction a specific denomination or all sects for that matter. Religion ought to be voluntarily supported by those who wish to do so.

I doubt that many will disagree with the definition of an establishment of religion set forth in Levy's book. I do not. The question, however, is in determining when some form of government action, at any level of jurisdiction, decidedly advances one or more sects at the distinct disadvantage of others.

Levy does an excellent job of bringing this issue home to our day and age and will certainly cause even those who disagree with his conclusions to carefully rethink their positions. In my opinion, it is must reading for all interested in the subject.

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