1517 Blogcast
Friday, June 4, 2021 00:00:0000:00:00

Friday, June 4, 2021

Today on the Almanac, we look at the controversial supreme court decision in Wallace v. Jaffree concerning school prayer in 1985.

*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***

It is the 4th of June 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.

Q: What does the Constitution say about the separation of church and state?

A: whatever the Supreme Court tells us it says.

No, of course, the wording “separation of church and state” appears nowhere in the constitution. But it did occur in a letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association and in 1947 the Everson v. Board of Education case decision by Justice Hugo Black affirmed that there was a “wall of separation” between the two. So, one is assumed even if the exact words aren’t used.

Q: What does the constitution say about Freedom of Religion?

A: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

Please note “congress shall make no law”! And, with the passing of the 14th amendment, the “congress shall make no law” was also applied to state and local governments. But even then the whole “establishment of religion” and “free exercise thereof” parts were rarely tested.

And then in the increasingly populous, diverse, public, and sectarian 20th century America we would see religious pluralism put to the test. Please note that this coincides with the so-called 4th Great Awakening we discussed a few days ago.

Amongst the questions being asked were “can religious schools accept state funds?” “Can public schools allow religious groups to use their space?” “What is compelled speech and does prayer, or a moment of silence, qualify?” etc…

And much of the controversy would occur when states attempted to challenge what they believed to be unjust laws that restrict religious freedom. And it was on this, the 4th of June in 1985 that the Supreme Court of the United States ruled on Wallace v. Jaffree, a monumental case involving an Alabama law that allowed for a moment of silence, a moment of prayer, or a simple moment to oneself at the start of each school day in Alabama public schools.

It may have been just the right soft approach to acknowledging diversity among the religious and non-religious. But there was a problem. Since 1971 there had been a so-called Lemon Test (based on Lemon v. Kurtzmann) in which laws pertaining to the religious clauses in the first amendment must:

  1. Have a secular legislative purpose
  2. Cannot have as a primary effect the advancing or inhibiting of religion and
  3. It cannot result in excessive government entanglement in religious affairs.

The “no excessive entanglement” was the Achilles heel of the Lemon test, but it’s not what did in the Alabama law.

Alabama State Senator Donald Holmes- a Democrat- wrote in the law that its intent was to return voluntary prayer to the schools. WHOOPS! And that is pretty much a slam dunk as the Lemon test (still in wide use then) prohibited laws made by state or federal government whose goals were religious in character.

And thus, it was on the 4th of June in 1985 that in the case of Wallace v. Jaffree the Supreme Court sided with Jaffree and struck down the Alabama law.

Just because the Supreme Court says something doesn’t make it right, but it makes it law. And the law will probably change as legal and social currents change. Nevertheless, I have a pro tip for you: you can pray whenever you want. You don’t need to have anyone sanction your communion with God through Christ in prayer. And of course, Paul says to pray without ceasing while Jesus has some pretty explicit sayings about praying in private… and that is a conversation to be had offline with friends and clergy.

The reading for today comes from the Book of Acts chapter 17:

22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God[j] and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.

This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 4th of June 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.

The show is produced by the pride of West Lafayette, Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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