‘Church and state’ — these buzzwords still cause quite a stir in the American political arena. At the beginning of this young nation, its leaders sought to separate church from state.
Though my assumption here may be incorrect, I think it was because the Founding Fathers of the United States saw the mess occurring when both spheres were under civil government that they wrote the First Amendment with its opening clauses.
The First Amendment states: ‘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’ (First Amendment of the US Constitution).
The so-called ‘Establishment Clause’ is now largely interpreted as meaning Congress (or any state legislature) cannot promote one religion over another. Furthermore, government agencies cannot promote the religious over secular lifestyle, nor the secular over religious.
This central issue has been debated by both left and right politicians over the years and has affected every level of government agency especially public [state] schools.
Seventeen years ago, on 7 February 1999, Georgia (Ga) State Representative Charles ‘Judy’ Poag introduced a bill that would require every public school in Georgia to post a copy of the Ten Commandments in its halls.
Furthermore, this bill stated that if a school did not post the Decalogue on its premises, state funding would be cut from that school. While similar bills were introduced in Mississippi, Kentucky, Indiana and other states, none had financial strings attached to them.
Poag and other legislators sought to introduce this bill in the light of the recent shootings at Columbine that had shocked the nation. Poag stated: ‘Over my years as lawmaker, I have heard people preach, and preach about getting religion out of our schools. However, when God was removed, violence and fear moved in.
‘There is something wrong with our system when [we] spend so much of our time and resources to keep religion out of the classroom, and yet students by the dozen are bringing guns into our schools’ (Fort Oglethorpe Press, 9 February 2000).
Other Georgia lawmakers stated the same grievance, namely that Christian principles were expunged from the school system, and now ‘many of our children are growing up without a sense of traditional values’ (Ron Stephens, Ga Representative, First Amendment News, 2/1/2000).
But these and many other arguments did not convince the other legislators, and the bill was voted unconstitutional.
Prayer and Bible
The issue of mixing church and state in the public school system is not limited to posting the Ten Commandments in plain sight. For many years, legislators have debated the presence of prayer in schools.
Many decades ago you could have attended a sporting event anywhere in this nation and hear someone pray in public. Today, prayers are seldom heard in public, even in the ‘Bible belt’ (American South). Since 1962, school-sponsored prayer has been prohibited in public schools due to its inherent violation of the Establishment Clause.
While that issue merely addressed a non-sectarian prayer that had been written for use in public schools, the debate deepened as lawmakers addressed the matter of Bible studies in public schools.
Schools today cannot teach the Bible as truth, and some groups have even been discouraged from forming Bible studies in the classroom. The Bible is now taught as literature, along with such other religious texts as the Koran and works of Confucius.
For American Christians, just how the establishment of religion relates to public education is very hazy. The law clearly prohibits Congress from establishing one religion over others and yet gives its citizens freedom to practice their religion — only not in the classroom.
The Pew Forum has stated the conundrum in this way: ‘Some Americans are troubled by what they see as an effort on the part of federal courts and civil liberties advocates to exclude God and religious sentiment from public schools. Such an effort, these Americans believe, infringes upon the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion’ (Pew Forum, 2007).
This is why this issue is still debated in the courts today, especially in light of the government’s redefining of marriage. So how should American Christians react in these cases? I think the Scriptures offer adequate answers for us all.
The apostle Paul speaks of our relationship to the civil government in his epistle to the Romans: ‘Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.
‘Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad’ (Romans 13:1-3). Jesus also states: ‘Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ (Matthew 22:21).
I think that the Founding Fathers of this country had very good intentions when they wrote the First Amendment. Its clauses prevent the government from dictating to the church and also assume that ‘rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad’.
Furthermore, the Amendment’s second clause gives us the freedom to worship, a freedom which many other countries do not share.
As to schools preventing public prayer and displays of the Ten Commandments, we should not be surprised when the secular authorities prescribe something that is not biblical in any institution they govern.
While the Bible does not sanction any one particular form of schooling, it does emphasise that parents should teach their children the faith, whether children are in public or private schools, or home-school settings (Proverbs 22:6; Exodus 13:8-9).
This principle does not mean though that Christians should be apathetic and not seek to be light and salt in schools. Rep. Poag had a point when he said that getting religion out of the schools has caused violence and fear to creep in.
While posting the Ten Commandments may not be the best legal approach, there have been small victories for those sharing the gospel in schools. There are a couple of groups, such as Young Life and Good News Clubs, that are allowed to share the gospel in public schools.
So how is that possible? In 2001 the Supreme Court made a ruling — in Good News Club vs. Milford Central School District — that ‘a public school which allows use of its facilities to secular groups may not discriminate against religious groups. The Good News Club case involved an adult-initiated and adult-led, after-school religious club, sponsored by Child Evangelism Fellowship’ (Child Evangelism Fellowship website).
Good News Club seeks to reach out to younger children, while Young Life is geared toward teenagers. Both groups teach the gospel and Young Life is especially useful for discipling children, even into college. Several members of my church are involved with both groups.
While creating a Christian atmosphere in public schools through public prayer and displays of the Ten Commandments may now be legally impossible, our Lord has still provided ways for children to hear about Jesus, though the government and civil liberties groups may try to drown it all out.
Ben Wilkerson served with Sheffield Presbyterian Church, UK, and is now a Christian writer residing in the USA