Commentary Magazine


Topic: church state separation

Separationists Run Amok in Milwaukee

Americans are rightly afraid of radical Islamists who seek to subjugate, behead, and enslave non-believers in the Middle East in the name of their faith. Ours, however, is a country where religious freedom is at the core of our identity as a nation. But many of us are so obsessed with separating religion from the state that we are prepared to go to any lengths to make it harder for individuals to practice their beliefs even when doing so threatens neither our liberties nor interferes with the rights of others. A classic example of this separationism run amok is to be found in Milwaukee where, of all things, the Jewish Federation supported the effort to prevent Jewish students at a local public high school from erecting a sukkah where they hoped to eat their lunch so as to comply with religious law about observance of the Feast of Tabernacles. In doing so, these liberal extremists taught us a lesson about how fear of religion can be almost as destructive of liberty as religious extremism.

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Americans are rightly afraid of radical Islamists who seek to subjugate, behead, and enslave non-believers in the Middle East in the name of their faith. Ours, however, is a country where religious freedom is at the core of our identity as a nation. But many of us are so obsessed with separating religion from the state that we are prepared to go to any lengths to make it harder for individuals to practice their beliefs even when doing so threatens neither our liberties nor interferes with the rights of others. A classic example of this separationism run amok is to be found in Milwaukee where, of all things, the Jewish Federation supported the effort to prevent Jewish students at a local public high school from erecting a sukkah where they hoped to eat their lunch so as to comply with religious law about observance of the Feast of Tabernacles. In doing so, these liberal extremists taught us a lesson about how fear of religion can be almost as destructive of liberty as religious extremism.

The eight-day festival of Sukkot is one in which Jews are instructed by the Torah to eat their meals in temporary huts called sukkahs in commemoration of those used by their ancestors wandering in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt. Such small structures are, as Tablet magazine points out in their piece about this story, to be found at the corporate headquarters of Google as well as at places like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But the small Sukkah erected at Milwaukee’s Nicolet High School that had existed in previous years was forced off campus in no small measure because the local Jewish Federation’s Community Relations Council considered it a violation of the separation between church and state.

The reasoning behind this seeming example of cognitive dissonance is that liberal true believers see any accommodation of belief on public property or in a public education setting as the thin edge of the wedge of theocracy. To their thinking, the mythical wall of separation must be erected so high that government institutions should exhibit no hint of faith. While the Founding Fathers intended the First Amendment to ensure that there would never be a state religion in the United States, modern-day liberals have distorted this sensible restriction. Instead of the constitutional prohibition of government favoring one religion over another, contemporary liberals have sought to redefine the Constitution as being hostile to the expression of religious faith in public settings.

This misguided sentiment stems from some real concerns that were dealt with in the past. State-run schools ought not to be promoting religion in the classroom as they used to do, especially when that usually was done at the expense of marginalizing religious minorities. But that justified opposition to state prayers at schools has morphed into an obsessive desire to ban Christmas trees or carols. Rather than seek to ban discrimination against their faith, many liberal Jews wish to marginalize all faiths, a divisive effort that undermines the good communal relations they purport to support as well as creating a naked public square with respect to faith that does far more harm than good. Their fear of faith leads them to invent restrictions against its expression instead of protecting religious freedom.

That is the twisted logic that led the Milwaukee Federation to push for the elimination of the Jewish students’ inoffensive sukkah.

That a group that pretends to represent all Jews would seek to prevent Jews from practicing their faith is more than ironic. It is a travesty. That travesty is only exacerbated when the person responsible for this outrage happens to be Hannah Rosenthal, whose last job before joining the federation was as the Obama State Department’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. Rosenthal was the person that Americans would have looked to for leadership and outrage were sukkahs banned by some foreign government. But instead of being an advocate for more religious freedom, in her new guise as communal leader Rosenthal has adopted the liberal separationist faith as her new Torah and led the charge to expunge even the most harmless expression of Jewish practice at a local high school.

Sadly, one Jewish student interviewed by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel said she felt “a little awkward” because if Christians “put up a Christmas tree or a crèche, we’d feel uncomfortable with that, so why put up a sukkah?”

That, in a nutshell, tells you not only what’s wrong with separationism but also with a Jewish community that is raising its children to fear other religions and to “feel awkward” when they see other Jews practicing their faith in a manner that does no harm to others.

This is, in part, a legacy of a past in which Jews did feel threatened and marginalized by the majority. But at a time when Jews are free to not only express their identity in any place or profession in the United States but to actually practice their faith unhindered by prejudice, such attitudes are not only outdated; they are highly destructive.

The problem here is that liberal Jews fear conservative Christians far more than they do ISIS, Hamas, Hezbollah, or the Taliban (as Tablet points out, it is unlikely that the federation would have opposed accommodations of Muslim practices). And they are so paranoid about it that they are ready to restrict examples of Jewish faith in the public square in order to forestall any manifestation of Christian faith there.

Hard as it may be for many liberal Jews to accept, Christians don’t threaten Jewish life in this country. But such extreme separationism is a symptom of the indifference to faith and Jewish identity that has created the demographic disaster that does threaten the Jewish future in the U.S. that was revealed by last year’s Portrait of Jewish Americans produced by the Pew Research Center. While some may have hoped that Jewish Federations would provide the leadership to help the community respond to the survey’s results, we find in Milwaukee that they are part of the problem, not the solution.

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Freedom for Religion, Not From It

Today the U.S. Supreme Court once again affirmed that the so-called “wall of separation” that exists between church and state is not quite the edifice that liberals would like it to be. In Town of Greece v. Galloway, the court ruled today that a village in upstate New York did not violate the First Amendment in allowing members of clergy to begin town board meetings with prayers, some of which were explicitly sectarian (and usually Christian) rather than ecumenical. The narrow vote along the usual 5-4 conservative/liberal lines is bound to incite many on the left to express fears about the court trying to turn the U.S. into a “Christian nation.”

But in upholding the rights of Greece, N.Y. to have meetings begin with a religious invocation, the court has done no such thing. Rather, it has simply affirmed a long American tradition of beginning public meetings with prayer. Even more to the point, by refusing to be drawn into the question of regulating the content of such prayers, the court has preserved religious liberty rather than constricting it. The decision also provides a timely reminder that for all the talk about separation walls, the main point of the First Amendment is to preserve freedom of religion, not freedom from any mention or contact with faith.

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Today the U.S. Supreme Court once again affirmed that the so-called “wall of separation” that exists between church and state is not quite the edifice that liberals would like it to be. In Town of Greece v. Galloway, the court ruled today that a village in upstate New York did not violate the First Amendment in allowing members of clergy to begin town board meetings with prayers, some of which were explicitly sectarian (and usually Christian) rather than ecumenical. The narrow vote along the usual 5-4 conservative/liberal lines is bound to incite many on the left to express fears about the court trying to turn the U.S. into a “Christian nation.”

But in upholding the rights of Greece, N.Y. to have meetings begin with a religious invocation, the court has done no such thing. Rather, it has simply affirmed a long American tradition of beginning public meetings with prayer. Even more to the point, by refusing to be drawn into the question of regulating the content of such prayers, the court has preserved religious liberty rather than constricting it. The decision also provides a timely reminder that for all the talk about separation walls, the main point of the First Amendment is to preserve freedom of religion, not freedom from any mention or contact with faith.

In recent decades, the “separationist” position on church/state interaction has grown more, rather than less, aggressive. In its 1962 Engel v. Vitale decision that banned public school prayers, the court rightly ruled that school districts had no business imposing what were often sectarian prayers on children. Given that students were not free agents who could accept or reject these prayers with impunity, it was clear that the practice could easily be considered an “establishment” of a state religion that is prohibited by the First Amendment. But purely ceremonial affairs such as invocations before legislative proceedings cannot be reasonably interpreted in the same light. Since, as Justice Anthony Kennedy noted in the majority opinion, such prayers go back to the First Congress and have been repeatedly upheld since then, any attempt to overturn these precedents was unwarranted.

It is true that for any member of a minority faith or for atheists, the repeated use of Christian prayers at Greece’s public meetings might be tedious or possibly offensive. But in the absence of a more diverse group of local clergy in this hamlet not far from the shores of Lake Ontario, the town’s choices were between either censoring the prayers of local clergy who were willing to take part or eliminating the practice. Clearly there are many on the left who would have been comfortable with the former and well pleased with the latter.

But what must be acknowledged is that being put in a position where one must listen to the prayers of another faith is not a violation of one’s constitutional rights. A ceremonial prayer, like the words “In God We Trust” on our coinage, does not transform our republic into one with a state religion. So long as those participating in such gestures are not attacking other faiths or those who do not believe in religion, their words are not an establishment of religion or impinge on the freedom of those listening. Adults at a town board meeting are not like schoolchildren in a closed class. They can join in the prayer or not at their own pleasure with no fear of punishment.

At the heart of this issue is the notion that any expression of faith in the public square is a violation of a vast mythical wall that some believe must completely separate religion from state. But while the Founders explicitly and with good reason forbade any one sect, denomination, or faith from being empowered by and identified with the state, they did not intend the First Amendment to be used as a shield to prevent Americans from any contact with religion. To the contrary, they saw faith as having an important role in preserving a democratic nation and a civil society.

There may have been a time when religious minorities and non-believers felt that the identification of the state with the faith of the Christian majority resulted in discriminatory practices that compromised their rights. But what is at stake here are not cases of bias or religious rule but rather the desire of some to be insulated from expressions of faith, and that is a privilege that the First Amendment does not provide them.

As we have seen with the efforts by the Obama administration to restrict the rights of religious believers in the Hobby Lobby case concerning the ObamaCare contraception mandate, there is a not inconsiderable body of opinion that would like to promote a cribbed definition of religious liberty that would be restricted to prayers in houses of worship or private homes. But Americans have always defined religious freedom in a more open and expansive manner that allowed them to practice their faith on the public square rather than only in private. It is that rich legal tradition that the court has upheld in Town of Greece. Though only a narrow majority is defending that principle on the Supreme Court at present, it is one that is well worth preserving.

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