What about Church and State?

There are five freedoms granted in the 1st amendment to our US constitution. They are freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to assemble peaceably, and freedom to petition the government for a redress of grievances. The first freedom regarding religion has two clauses which are the “establishment clause” and the “free exercise clause.” The establishment clause reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” The free exercise clause reads, “…..or prohibiting the free exercise [of religion] thereof,…” The entire 1st amendment reads;

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

As an Army chaplain we were often reminded of the legal basis and precedents that had been put in place for us to legally serve and minister to Soldiers. We were religious professionals who had been hired by the US Government, Department of Defense, in order to provide religious services to our troops. On the surface, this appeared to be a violation of the establishment clause in the 1st amendment because government money was used to pay for religious leaders to conduct services. This clause is often alluded to as the principle of “the separation of church and state” but is actually a paraphrase or summary of the ideas expressed in the 1st amendment’s establishment clause.

The legality of employing chaplains, who are paid for with Federal Funds, are based on the following rulings; Abington School District v. Schempp (1963), Theriault v. Silber (1977), Marsh v. Chambers (1983), Katcoff v. Marsh (2d Cir. 1985). A common thread in these cases is that the courts have consistently ruled that the benefits to protecting the free exercise of religion clause outweigh any potential establishment clause violation, when these two clauses clash with each other. What’s of special interest is that Justice William J. Brennan Jr. noted, in his concurrence, in the Abington School District v. Schempp (June 17, 1963) Supreme Court decision;

“Since government has deprived such persons of the opportunity to practice their faith at places of their choice, [due to things like military service or prison confinement] …. government may, in order to avoid infringing the free exercise guarantees, provide substitutes where it requires such persons to be.” Not to provide such substitutes, he observed, would signal hostility toward religion rather than neutrality.”

Note above the underlined word, “hostility.” Just last year around this time another victory was seen for Christians living and practicing their faith in the civilian sector in the USA. Jack Phillips, the Baker from Colorado who refused to make a cake for a Gay Couple, was vindicated, and his 1st Amendment freedom of speech and religious rights were protected, by a USA Supreme court decision. Chief Justice Kennedy and the court made clear, in a 7-2 decision, that religious hostility by the Colorado government civil rights commission towards Christians—specifically Jack Phillips–has no place in a religiously pluralistic environment. Note again the underlined word, “hostility.” This recent Supreme Court decision is not innovative but follows the historic precedent of protecting our religious freedoms in the face of religious hostility. And now you know the rest of the story!

We should rejoice in this new Supreme Court ruling because it allows us to continue practicing our Christian faith in the civilian sector and allows those in military service to continue to be served by chaplains. But we should do more than rejoice.  Jesus said, “We must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day; night comes, when no one can work.” –John 9:4. The Spiritual darkness of death is the night spoken of here. This means the day may come soon when we cannot worship freely and are persecuted for our Christian faith. We should be moved by Jesus’ words to a sense of urgency in witnessing to non-believing friends, family, and neighbors, that they might know Jesus and be saved.

In our Lutheran rite of Confirmation, we find the Words of the great commission, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: 20 Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” –Matthew 28:19-20 (KJV).

These words call us to go out to the world and proclaim the good news of our salvation accomplished by Jesus Christ in His death for our sins on the cross. Next are the words “Whoever confesses me before men, I will also confess before my Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, I will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32-33). Our confirmation vows then included the words, “Do you intend to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it?” (Lutheran Service Book pp. 272-273)

This year let us also renew our confirmation vows along with our confirmands. Let us declare the wondrous works of our God and His salvation for the World to hear!