Metaphors Have Consequences

“The adulterous connection of church and state.”

—Thomas Paine

Is “separation of Church and State” a bedrock principle of the U.S. Constitution?  Should it be?  The answers of constitutional historians Daniel L. Dreisbach and Philip Hamburger fly in the face of conventional wisdom, embodied in such cases as Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe (2000), in which the Supreme Court held that students at a Texas high school were to be barred from delivering nonsectarian, nonproselytizing prayers before their football games—even though the students themselves had voted for such ceremonies.

The Santa Fe decision was based on a 1992 Supreme Court ruling that had banned officially sponsored nonsectarian prayers at a public-middle-school graduation ceremony on the grounds that,

at a minimum, the Constitution guarantees that government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise, or otherwise act in a way that establishes a state religion or religious faith, or tends to do so.

Listening to a school-sponsored prayer violates the Constitution, a majority of the Court believes, because the “coercive” nature of such prayers leads the nonbelieving student to feel alienated from his classmates.


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