Representative Boebert's "Separation of Church and State" Comment Misinformed And Historically Inaccurate
Civil Rights Policy Brief #191 | By: Rodney A. Maggay | July 2022
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On June 26, 2022, Representative Lauren Boebert (R-CO) made remarks at the Cornerstone Christian Center in Basalt, Colorado about the role of religion and government in the United States. Representative Boebert stated, “The church is supposed to direct the government. The government is not supposed to direct the church. That is not how our Founding Fathers intended it.” She continued by stating “I’m tired of this separation of church and state junk – that’s not in the Constitution. It was in a stinking letter and it means nothing like they say it does.”
The comments were heavily criticized not just from politicians but also from American citizens from all walks of life. On June 29, 2022 Representative Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) responded and blasted Representative Boebert for her comments. In a tweet posted to his Twitter account that was posted with a picture of Ms. Boebert, Representative Kinzinger said, “There is no difference between this and the Taliban.
“We must [be] opposed [to] the Christian Taliban. I say this as a Christian.” The mention of the Taliban is a reference to the currently ruling government of Afghanistan and its establishment of Islam as the religion of the state. The phrase Christian Taliban likely implies that Representative Boebert’s comments support a state mandated Christian religion in the United States similar to how the Taliban have declared Islam as the state religion in Afghanistan.
Representative Boebert’s remarks, which received applause from the crowd, is incredibly ignorant of the history of the First Amendment and the Establishment Clause and the goals that the Founding Fathers, specifically Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, had for this particular clause.
When Ms. Boebert mentioned the “stinking letter” in her comments she was very likely referring to a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptists Association in 1802. In that letter, President Jefferson assured the association that there was “a wall of separation between Church and State.” President Jefferson wanted to reassure the group that the government would not interfere with their religious affairs and that the government would not give favor to any other religion. But because the words “separation of church and state” appear in this personal letter and nowhere in the U.S. Constitution, religious conservatives claim this is evidence that there was never any intent for the church and the state to be separate.
But this claim by religious conservatives is completely wrong and there is overwhelming evidence that the intent of the Founding Fathers was a strict separation of church and state.
In 1777 Thomas Jefferson wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. That statute provides that no person can be forced to attend any church or even be forced to support any church with his taxes. And, it provides that any man is free to worship as he pleases with no discrimination. However, Virginia did not pass the statute at that time. In 1786, James Madison revived Jefferson’s bill in order to defeat another bill that would have required Virginia taxpayers to support a Christian church. Additionally, Madison also wrote a long document advocating for the strict separation of church and state titled “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments.” What is clear is that James Madison and Thomas Jefferson both favored the doctrine of a separation of church and state even if they did not use those exact words at the time. And since James Madison subsequently authored the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution, including the Establishment Clause embodied in the First Amendment, it is clear that a strict separation of church and state was the intent of the Founding Fathers in the 1780’s.
This background has helped inform the development of the Establishment Clause down through the modern day. With only ten words the clause has been remarkably durable in standing for the doctrine of a separation of church and state. Through the years, the Supreme Court has interpreted the clause to strike down state laws requiring the recitation of school prayer in public schools, moments of silence for private prayer in public schools and the recitation of prayers before other school events such as graduations and athletic contests. The Court has even relied on the clause to prohibit the display of religious symbols such as the Ten Commandments on state grounds such as a courthouse.
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The key for the Court in these cases under an Establishment Clause challenge was in determining whether a state law had a secular purpose or was enacted solely to promote or inhibit religion. Promoting or inhibiting religion would be enough to render a statute void. In the 1947 case Everson v. Board of Education Justice Hugo Black said it best when he stated, “The ‘establishment of religion’ clause of the First Amendment means…[n]either can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another.”
So, despite overwhelming evidence that there was an intent for a “wall of separation” why do religious conservatives ignore the history of cases at the Supreme Court and also claim Jefferson’s 1802 letter as evidence that the government and the church should not be separate? By trying to claim Jefferson’s letter as proof, religious conservatives find it easier to dismiss the concept that there is a separation of church and state. This would then permit them to propose laws that are more in line with Christian thought without having to deal with the possibility that their laws would be declared void because of the Establishment Clause. People on the religious right want nothing more than to have Christianity declared as the official religion of the United States.
But that ignores the fact that there are other religions and sects in the U.S. Declaring Christianity as the only religion the U.S. Government supports would exclude millions of people who practice different faiths and hold different religious values. Representative Kinzinger’s response was very likely alluding to the dangers of a state sponsored religion when he suggested Representative Boebert’s wish for more religion in government policies would be the introduction of a “Christian Taliban” in the U.S.
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But while it might be easy to dismiss Representative Boebert’s comments as being uninformed, recent incidents in the U.S. show that she is not alone in trying to propose a Christian worldview on official government policy. Just this week in Florida, Florida parents and educators raised concerns of new Christian nationalist teachings put into public school lessons in revised civics studies. In 2015, the Idaho GOP proposed to have Idaho declared a Christian state. And, there have been numerous incidents where legislators have proposed more prayer and more God in public schools to deal with a myriad of problems such as school shootings, unwed and teenage mothers and student drug abuse.
These politicians do not understand, or do not want to understand, that there is a clear separation of the government and the church. It seems probable that these politicians are simply ignoring what the First Amendment and the Establishment Clause provide in order to try and impose a Christian worldview on government activities. The United States was founded with the intent that all religious faiths, beliefs and sects would be tolerated and that the U.S. Government would not favor or aid any one religion above all others. Representative Kinzinger was right in calling out Representative Boebert’s uninformed comments and the historical evidence clearly shows that Ms. Boebert was simply wrong in calling the separation of church and state “junk.” LEARN MORE, LEARN MORE
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The Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University – article explaining James Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” document and Madison’s views on religious liberty.