What’s God got to do with it?
When considering how the federal government should treat religion, it is important to look at the historical context behind the Constitution to truly understand the intent of the nation’s founders, said the senior vice president of a legal alliance dedicated to defending religious freedom at the University of Florida Levin College of Law Advocacy Center last week.
Jeffery J. Ventrella’s presentation, “What’s God got to do with it?: The Prima Facie Propriety of Public Religious Expression,” was sponsored by the UF Federalist Society and The John Templeton Foundation.
Ventrella explored the topic of the public expression of religion, examining the historical context of the Constitution and the intent of those who framed the religion clause of the First Amendment. The discussion also focused on displays of the Ten Commandments in public venues.
“The question I want to begin with is, ‘Is it obviously the case that displaying the Decalogue is unconstitutional?’” Ventrella said.
He continued by asking whether the Constitution is neutral toward religion, negative toward religion or if it nurtures the public expression of religion.
“I think if we look at the text of the Constitution within its own context historically, we’ll find that there’s a prima facie propriety of public religious expression,” he said.
Ventrella pointed out that there are four separate references to a God or a supreme being in the Declaration of Independence – a key founding document and one to which the Constitution refers.
Additionally, the source material for the Constitution is derived partially from Christian texts, he said. Nine percent of the ideas, quotations and allusions are taken from the Apostle Paul’s teachings; more than Montesquieu or John Locke.
Ventrella explored other instances where the federal government and religion crossed paths, including the Northwest Ordinance of 1789, which stated that as part of the qualifications for a territory to become a state, they must establish publicly funded schools “that teach religion, morality and knowledge,” he said.
He also explained that the “No Religious Test Clause” in the Constitution was not intended to necessarily keep religious views out of government, but rather it was meant to allow people from different Christian sects to work together without their particular denominations causing conflict.
The “Sundays Excepted” clause in the Constitution also seems to acknowledge the influence and importance of religion for those in federal government by not working on the Christian Sabbath. The clause states that the president has 10 days, excluding Sunday, to review legislation.
“The Capitol building, treasury building, war building were places that the federal government permitted religious worship on Sundays,” Ventrella said, which would have made it difficult for much work to be accomplished on that day anyway.
“Separation of church and state? Well, either someone didn’t get it then or someone doesn’t get it now,” he said.
Ventrella then turned to more recent developments, examining two Supreme Court rulings regarding the public display of the Ten Commandments; one ruled in favor and one ruled against displaying the documents in public venues.
“Which one comports with the text and which one comports with the context?” he asked.
In the case of McCreary County v. ACLI of Kentucky, the public display of the Ten Commandments was determined to be unconstitutional. Ventrella said the ruling was based primarily on the court’s determination that there was religious intent behind the display.
“Does the mere reference of acknowledgment to religion comprise establishment?” Ventrella asked. “I don’t think so. I think there’s a key distinction that was missed by the court. I think when a nation forms and decides that rights exist and then it seeks to distinguish itself from other nations, why can’t it state the world view or principles or assumptions that the founders believed whether true or not?”
Conversely, in Van Orden v. Perry, the court ruled that publicly displaying the Ten Commandments did not violate the Constitution because the overall display conveyed a religious and secular message.
Besides Van Orden having a limited legislative history and the fact that the display was financed and donated by a private group, a big deciding factor was the court’s finding that the display was a passive monument, Ventrella said.
Next, Ventrella discussed the importance of remembering that a person’s rights do not come from the state. He warned against that type of thinking, which can lead down a dangerous road toward a totalitarian or communist state. The state exists to protect our rights, which are inalienable, according to the Declaration of Independence, he said.
“Do we want to airbrush away the history, tradition and other things? Or do we want to live in ignorance like they did in the Soviet Union, or do we say ‘no, this comports with our history and traditions’?” Ventrella asked.
“So what’s God got to do with it?” Ventrella asked in closing, “I would say everything if you’re going to answer this question correctly.”
Stephen C. O’Connell Chair and UF Professor of Law Lyrissa Lidsky gave a brief commentary following Ventrella’s discussion.
Lidsky agreed with Ventrella that the nation’s founders did not view symbolic support for Protestantism as being in conflict with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
She also addressed the concept of government neutrality on religion, acknowledging that neutrality can be defined in different ways, but she settled on a definition by University of Virginia Law Professor Doug Laycock, which holds that there should be no coercion or persuasion for or against any particular religion by the government.
“On a personal note, I think that when the government starts sponsoring religion and even sponsoring Christianity, it sends a message to all of us who aren’t Christians that we aren’t full members of society,” Lidsky said. “It’s a predominantly Christian culture, but when the government sponsors religion, it says anyone who is not Christian is a permanent outsider in that culture, and I do think that violates the text of the First Amendment as written. Whatever neutrality means, I think it means that.”