Jared Farley’s response to Pastor Leathley’s “Essay” of May 28, 2009, titled “Why God Was Expelled From School”
Pastor Steve Leathley, of the Bible Baptist Church in Cambridge, Ohio, has decided to disseminate his “knowledge” of the Founding Fathers and the meaning of the constitutional doctrine of separation of church and state through his own personal blog hosted off his congregations website. You will remember that Pastor Leathley and I had an exchange in the local newspaper earlier this year about the religious faith of George Washington, in which Leathley attempted to use excerpts from the debunked Washington Prayer Book.
Unlike the op-ed section of the newspaper, this blog allows Pastor Leathley to post his essays, obviously cultivated faithfully from various religious right sources, without providing anyone else the prospect of challenging his statements. I attempted to post comments pointing out his historical and legal errors and engaging him in constructive debate when I first became aware of his essays. However, he characteristically refused to publish any of my critique or even to correct any of the errors I had accurately described and documented.
Pastor Leathley’s most recent essay is titled “Why God Was Expelled From School”. It is riddled with historical errors, legal fallacies and regurgitated religious right propaganda. This is not surprising as I have listen to some of his sermons online and he certainly has a solid record of parroting religious right talking points and broadcasting historical misinformation from his pulpit, all which a faux appearance of authority within his church.
Why is any of this important? Because Pastor Leathley is not just an isolated case of a fundamentalist who has bought into the religious right playbook. As someone who was born and raised in this rural and conservative part of southeastern Ohio, I can report that many ministers in this area are in complete agreement with Pastor Leathley. It is amazing when listening to people out in the community or even my students how many accept these religious right books as valid, unbiased works. Many times I have listened to students make statements in class only to discover they have simply regurgitate something they have heard their preacher say or read in a religious right book.
What is wrong with his essay?
Fallacy #1: “In 1962 the Supreme Court ruled it ‘unconstitutional’ for prayers to be said in the public school system.”
This is an erroneous hyperbole often hear from fundamentalist and evangelical pulpits. It is really a scare tactic, an attempt to present the legal situation in the most alarming way possible to scare a congregation or readers. It is and always has been legal for individual students to pray privately in public schools. The date Leathley references is the date of the Engle v. Vitale (1962) ruling, but this landmark decision only prevents schools and their personnel from becoming involved in student prayers, which actually protects the students’ religious freedom. Prayer only becomes an issue when school personnel or school resources become involved, or when students begin to proselytize aggressively, make their fellow students uncomfortable, or disrupt the general learning environment. Otherwise, it is constitutional and should be completely acceptable for individual, private prayers to be said in public schools. If a students right to pray (within the framework described above) is violated, they have a legitimate legal case against the school system.
Fallacy #2: “In 1963 our Supreme Court ruled it ‘unconstitutional’ for the Bible to be used in our public school system.”
Again, this is simply an exaggerated and invalid statement. The 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Abington Township School District v. Schempp only prevents the Bible from being used as a sacred book in the public school system. In similar fashion to how school personnel and resources cannot be utilized concerning religious prayers, the school cannot become involved in encouraging or requiring students to read the Bible in a devotional manner. However, schools may require students to read the Bible as part of history courses or in courses concerning world religious as long as it is presented as one of many books various cultures revere as sacred. The Bible cannot be presented to students as superior to other religious works (Koran, Book of Mormon, Talmud, or Rig Veda). Students may also privately read the Bible on their own time as long as they do not unnecessarily disturb other students, or disturb the general learning environment.
Fallacy #3: “In this letter President Jefferson used the phrase ‘separation between Church and State’ to assure the Association that the Government would make no laws restricting their free exercise of religion.”
Baptists in Connecticut already had freedom to exercise their religion in Connecticut. What they were complaining about was that the Congregationalist Church was the established church in that state and was funded through state general revenues. The State of Connecticut had granted Baptists and some other dissenters the right to apply for a special certificate to have their tax monies directed to churches and ministers of their own persuasion, but the process for obtaining such licenses were cumbersome and often biased. Thus, the Danbury Baptists were writing to express their hope that the Congregationalist Church would be disestablished, similar to how the champion of religious freedom, Jefferson, through his ally James Madison, had worked to disestablish the Episcopalian Church in Virginia in 1785.
The main part of the Danbury Baptist Association’s letter reads:
“Our Sentiments are uniformly on the side of Religious Liberty—That Religion is at all times and places a Matter between God and Individuals—That no man aught to suffer in Name, person or effects on account of his religious Opinions—That the legetimate Power of civil Goverment extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbour: But Sir, our constitution of goverment is not specific. Our antient charter, together with the Laws made coincident therewith, were adopted as the Basis of our goverment, At the time of our revolution; and such had been our Laws & usages, & such still are; that religion is consider’d as the first object of Legislation; & therefore what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the State) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights: and these favors we receive at the expence of such degrading acknowledgements as are inconsistant with the rights of freemen.” (bolding is mine, as is the case throughout this essay)
The line “That the legitimate power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor” is very clear and mirrors the language Jefferson used in his Notes on Virginia, where he remarked:
“The error seems not sufficiently eradicated, that the operations of the mind, as well as the acts of the body, are subject to the coercion of the laws. But our rulers can have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
In short, the Danbury Baptists are stating their belief that civil government has no authority in religious matters whatsoever, neither to violate their right to free exercise of religion or to violate their rights of conscience by using their tax monies to advance religious opinions with which they disagreed.
To understand further the dissenting Baptist opinion in Connecticut, it might be helpful to consider a political sermon by famed Baptist preacher John Leland. Rev. Leland, along with Isaac Backus, were two of the most fundamental allies of Jefferson and Madison in advocating a separation between church and state. In his sermon “The Rights of Conscience Inalienable”, which he delivered to the Baptist congregation at New London, CT in 1791, shortly after Rev. Leland relocated to New England and during the period of the ratification of the First Amendment, Leland argues that religious freedom consists of two parts, free exercise of the individual and protection of the rights of conscience.
While Leland’s entire sermon is well worth the read, there are several parts that I will highlight. Notice how he echoes many of the arguments that Thomas Jefferson made in his Notes on Virginia (which seemingly indicates he was a disciple of Jefferson on this topic). He writes:
“Is conformity of sentiments in matters of religion essential to the happiness of civil government? Not at all. Government has no more to do with the religious opinions of men than it has with the principles of the mathematics. Let every man speak freely without fear—maintain the principles that he believes—worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God, or twenty Gods; and let government protect him in so doing, i.e. see that he meets with no personal abuse or loss of property for his religious opinions. Instead of discouraging of him with proscriptions, fines, confiscation or death; let him be encouraged, as a free man, to bring forth his arguments and maintain his points with all boldness; then if his doctrine is false it will be confuted, and if it is true (though ever so novel) let others credit it. When every man has this liberty what can he wish for more? A liberal man asks for nothing more of government.
The duty of magistrates is not to judge of the divinity or tendency of doctrines, but when those principles break out into overt acts of violence then to use the civil sword and punish the vagrant for what he has done and not for the religious phrenzy that he acted from.”
“This certificate law is founded on this principle, ‘that it is the duty of all persons to support the gospel and the worship of God.’ Is this principle founded in justice? Is it the duty of a deist to support that which he believes to be a threat and imposition? Is it the duty of a Jew to support the religion of Jesus Christ, when he really believes that he was an impostor? Must the papists be forced to pay men for preaching down the supremacy of the pope, whom they are sure is the head of the church? Must a Turk maintain a religion opposed to the alcoran, which he holds as the sacred oracles of heaven? These things want better confirmation. If we suppose that it is the duty of all these to support the protestant christian religion, as being the best religion in the world—yet how comes it to pass that human legislatures have right to force them so to do? I now call for an instance where Jesus Christ, the author of his religion, or the apostles, who were divinely inspired, ever gave orders to or intimated that the civil powers on earth ought to force people to observe the rules and doctrine of the gospel.”
Rev. Leland is arguing that first, the government has no business in the religious realm and secondly, that all citizens have a "right to conscience" from having their tax money used for purposes they detest. Notice that he does not limit this right to fellow Protestants. He explicitly includes deists, Jews, Muslims and Catholics. This is important because the theory is posits is that no citizen should have their tax money used for religious ideas they believe “to be a threat and imposition”.
Leland’s sermon was well received, went into several printings and was distributed amongst dissenting circles throughout Connecticut and the rest of New England. This suggests strongly (although not direct proof) that the Danbury Baptists in Connecticut favored a very strict separation of church and state, which included a broadly defined conception of a right of conscience for all citizens, Christians and non-Christians alike (including protections for all citizens to not have their tax monies used in ways which violated their rights of conscience).
Also, notice the wording in President Jefferson’s response to the Danbury Baptist Association:
“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between church and State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.”
First, Jefferson is saying he agrees with the opinions of the Danbury Baptists regarding the separation of church and state, that “the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions.” This should not surprise us as it has already been mentioned that the Danbury Baptists were parroting off Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia in composing their letter. But also notice that Jefferson invokes the conception of rights of conscience and declares that he hopes that this country will progress to the point were those rights will be RESTORED, meaning Americans did not completely have these rights in 1802. It is here that it becomes clear that Pastor Leathley is wrong arguing that Jefferson only wrote to “to assure the Association that the Government would make no laws restricting their free exercise of religion.” If Jefferson’s conception of the rights of conscience is anything like Rev. Leland’s use of the phrase, then Jefferson is saying that religious freedom includes the right not to have your tax money used for religious purposes for which a citizen disagrees. And remember, Leland extended that right to both Christians and non-Christians alike.
Fallacy #4: “Thomas Jefferson’s view of the part religion should play in education would more aptly be understood in light of the fact that in 1787, while he was serving in Congress, Congress passed the “Northwest Ordinance”, which Jefferson highly influenced.”
(I heavily utilize Chris Rodda’s “Liars For Jesus” (2006) in debunking this fallacy, especially chapter two titled “The Northwest Ordinance”.)
First, Pastor Leathley is incorrect that Thomas Jefferson was serving in the U.S. Congress during 1787. Jefferson did represent the Commonwealth of Virginia from 1783-1784. But in 1785, Jefferson replaced Benjamin Franklin as minister to France and served in that office until President Washington made him the first Secretary of State in 1790. However, Jefferson did highly influence the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, because he had composed the first piece of legislation governing that new territory in 1784, which the 1787 Northwest Ordinance was largely based upon. But it is very important to understand that Jefferson’s 1784 law did not contain anything about religion or education. That language was added later, not by a member of Congress, but by a pious businessman and orthodox Congregationalist minister (Dr./Rev. Manasseh Cutler), part owner of the Ohio Company, who demanded that the language be included before his company would agree to purchase land in the Northwestern Territory. Congress was massively in debt at this point and needed to sell the land plots in the Northwest Territory to generate revenues to pay off their debts. As such, they were forced to accept his proposal, really having little choice as there were few other potential buyers. However they still changed the language Cutler proposed. He wanted: “Institutions for the promotion of religion and morality, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged…” but Congress changed the wording to: Religion, Morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged…” Notice what they did. Rather than saying they would DIRECTLY support religious institutions, they simply gave lip-service to religion and morality and then said they would INDIRECTLY support it through support of public schools in the designated plots. It was this version that passed through the Confederation Congress in 1787, not Jefferson’s draft. And Jefferson had gone to Paris at that point, so he was not there to debate or even vote on it.
And to show how little Congress cared about the religious aspect of the Northwestern Ordinance, note that the only places where Congress ever ENFORCED it (reserving Lot 29 for religious purposes and not selling it for money) was in the limited Ohio Company Purchase and the Symmes Purchase, which did not even encompass half of the territory which would eventually become the State of Ohio, much less all of the Northwestern Territory. They did all of this to appease the Ohio Company and Cutler…and then promptly ignored it in their dealings with the rest of the Territory. When the Ohio Company later purchased a second plot of land and realized that Congress had not set aside all of the Lot 29s, they petitioned Congress to redress the issue, which Congress refused to do (see “Liars for Jesus” for more information, chapter 2 for more information).
What is most gulling about Pastor Leathley’s essay is that he asserts that Thomas Jefferson would have approved of the language contained within Article III of the 1787 Northwest Ordinance. It is hard to tell who would earn the title as the greatest separationist in U.S. History, but the competition would be between Jefferson and Madison. Jefferson was such a strong believer in keeping the government out of the religious realm that he refused to issue national declarations for days of fasting and prayer because he thought they violated the no establishment clause of the First Amendment. He explained in a letter to Presbyterian minister Samuel Miller from January 23, 1808:
“I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct its exercise, its discipline or its doctrines; nor of the religious societies, that the general government should be invested with the power of effecting any uniformity of time or place among them. Fasting and prayer are religious exercises; the enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises and the objects proper to them, according to their own particular tenets; and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the Constitution had deposited it. ….Everyone must act according to the dictates of his own reason, and mine tells me that civil powers alone have been given to the President of the United States, and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.”
But more specifically to the point, here is an excerpt from Jefferson’s “The Administration of Laws and the Description of Laws” (p. 273):
“Instead therefore of putting the Bible and Testament into the hands of the children, at an age when their judgments are not sufficiently matured for religious enquiries, their memories may here be stored with the most useful facts from Grecian, Roman, European and American history. The first elements of morality too may be instilled into their minds; such as, when further developed as their judgments advance in strength, may teach them how to work out their own greatest happiness, by shewing them that it does not depend on the condition of life in which chance has placed them, but is always the result of a good conscience, good health, occupation, and freedom in all just pursuits.”
Thus, Jefferson thought it better to fully educate children rather than indoctrinating them, because then when they encountered religious ideas, they could better investigate and judge the various theological arguments they would come across.
One should also consider the opinion of Jefferson’s strongest political ally on church/state separation, James Madison. Here is what Madison, the 4th President of the United States, wrote to James Monroe, the 5th President of the United States, when some members of the U.S. Congress attempted to insert the following language into the 1785 Ordinance (another forerunner to the 1787 Northwest Ordinance):
“There shall be reserved the central Section of every Township, for the maintenance of public Schools; and the Section immediately adjoining the same to the northward, for the support of religion. The profits arising therefrom in both instances, to be applied for ever according to the will of the majority of male residents of full age within the same.”
The proposal was defeated and the language was not included into the 1785 Ordinance. (Notice that Congress had the opportunity to insert basically the religious language later found in the 1787 Ordinance into the 1785 Ordinance, and they refused.)
Here is what James Madison wrote about this attempt to meld church and state in a letter to James Monroe from May 29, 1785:
“It gives me much pleasure to observe by 2 printed reports sent me by Col. Grayson that, in the latter Congress had expunged a clause contained in the first for setting apart a district of land in each Township for supporting the Religion of the majority of inhabitants. How a regulation so unjust in itself, so foreign to the Authority of Congress, so hurtful to the sale of the public land, and smelling so strongly of an antiquated Bigotry, could have received the countenance of a Committee is truly matter of astonishment. In one view it might have been no disadvantage to this State in case the General Assessment should take place, as it would have given a repellent quality to the new Country in the estimation of those whom our own encroachments on Religious Liberty would be calculated to banish to it. But the adversaries to the assessment begin to think the prospect here flattering to their wishes. The printed Bill has excited great discussion and is likely to prove the sense of the Country to be in favor of the liberty now enjoyed.” (I have correct some spelling for clarity in this quotation)
Notice how broadly Madison defines “religious liberty” here. Apparently to him, religious liberty included not only the free exercise of religion and the absence of a single established church, but also protection of the rights of conscience identified with the use one’s tax money.
Fallacy #5- “If “separation between Church and State” was a philosophy of early America, why did it take until 1962 for God (prayer, the Bible, etc.) to be expelled from school?”
Because schools, under the control of the states were not subject to the No Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution until the U.S. Supreme Court decided to “selectively incorporate” that part of the Bill of Rights after the adoption of the 14th Amendment after the conclusion of the American Civil War, applying its civil liberty protections to both the national government and the state governments. This happened in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1947, Everson v. Board of Education. You are right that for many decades after the passage of the First Amendment, that there was prayer in some public schools, daily Bible readings and postings of the 10 Commandments, but remember the states (and through them the local schools) were not required to observe the No Establishment Clause. But just because the individuals in these states and local communities did not respect the concept of separation of church and state does not mean that was the intention at the national level, which was subject to the No Establishment Clause.
It is true that Madison wanted to apply the No Establishment Clause to the states as well as the national government during the drafting of the First Amendment in 1791 (as did many members of Congress), but he narrowly lost that battle in the First Congress under the new document.
However, the U.S. Congress after 1802 largely required new states admitted to the Union to provide for some degree of separation of church and state in their state constitutions, including prohibitations on using public tax money for religious schools.
Fallacy #6-That the phrase “separation of church & state” does not appear in the U.S. Constitution or the Declaration of Independence makes it lack legitimacy.
Pastor Leathley is technically correct that the phrase does not appear in the U.S. Constitution, but neither do the short-hand terms for many other constitutional principals & doctrines the vast majority of Americans accept as legitimate. For example, the phrase “separation of powers” does not appear in the Constitution, but that clearly that principal is articulated by the framework of the Constitution. The phrase “checks and balances” does not appear in the Constitution, but that concept is part of the Constitution…right? Thus, just because an exact phrase does not appear in the Constitution does not mean the principal was not intended by the document. That is a logical fallacy.
Fallacy #7- Pastor Leathley seems to indicate that the Declaration of Independence is a “legal document”, along with the U.S. Constitution.
This premise is inaccurate. The Declaration of Independence has no legal authority in our Constitutional system. It is only an announcement the Continental Congress used to proclaim their intention to formally rebel against Britain.
In conclusion Pastor Leathley needs to learn an axiom I regularly remind my students of: "Not all opinions are equal, because some have better evidence to provide them legitimacy."
(Administrators- please feel free to clean this up for me, as this is my first post. Readers- please feel free to point out anything you believe is inaccurate or fallacious thinking on my part in the comments section.)