The Winning 2007 Oration
By David Anguish
Contest held July 8th, 2007 in Williamsburg, Virginia
“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket, nor breaks my leg.”
Thomas Jefferson is a man known for the power of his words. His words here, said shortly after the American Revolution, speak volumes about the importance of the separation of church and state.
Most Americans today believe that our country enjoys such a separation. However, we often hear the United States described as a Christian nation. We hear of court cases concerning prayer in schools or religious displays on public property. So, if we are enjoying this “separation of church and state,” why all the trouble? Well, the term itself appears nowhere directly in the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson used the expression in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802. But it is alarming that people insist on questioning the constitutionality of various laws and practices based on an idea that doesn’t even appear in the document. Going further, this separation, upon which so much weight is placed, is not clearly defined.
The first time religion is mentioned in the Constitution is in Article VI. Here, it says that all those serving in public office “shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” It is important to note that one must make an oath or an affirmation. This option is offered, itself, as a safeguard of religious freedom: so that someone who could not or would not swear could still affirm his or her support for the Constitution and be bound by a sense of personal responsibility.
Next, Amendment I states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This Establishment Clause ensures a separation of church and state as well as an individual’s right to worship in whatever manner he or she wishes, or not to worship at all. It is a truly essential element of both the Constitution and our nation’s character. Many early American colonists were fleeing religious persecution at home in Europe. The Puritans settled in New England, the Quakers in Pennsylvania, and the Catholics in Maryland. These individual colonies became havens for people who sought religious freedom. The First Amendment also guarantees freedom of speech and the press, the right to assemble, and to stand up to abusive government. Incorporating all these rights into a single amendment truly serves to affirm the unified nature of political and religious freedom.
As recently as 1985, the Supreme Court held in Wallace v. Jaffree that an Alabama law authorizing public school teachers to conduct religious prayer services in the classroom violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. Justice William Rehnquist argued against this ruling. In his dissent, he wrote that “George Washington himself, at the request of the very Congress which passed the Bill of Rights, proclaimed a day of ‘public thank