Separation of church and state: Has the pendulum swung too far?

By Matt Barnes / For The Pitt News

As the holiday season approaches, I am reminded of an event that took place two years ago in my hometown of Ellwood City, Pa.

For more than 50 years during the Christmas season, a traditional nativity scene stood on the lawn of the borough’s downtown municipal building. In the past few years, a group called the Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., threatened legal action to ensure the creche’s removal. The group argued that the Christian display on government ground violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. As time went on, the pressure from the group could not be ignored.

The controversy culminated in December 2011, with a showdown between the 8,000 residents of the town and the freedom group. Council meetings were filled with hundreds of men, women and children of the community, urging their council members to fight for their religious rights.  

It was amazing to see the effect one particular issue could have on the citizens of a small Western Pennsylvania town. 

The Establishment Clause states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” This has often been interpreted as prohibiting government from establishing a recognized religious preference. In the case of Ellwood City’s nativity scene, it is undeniable that the display on municipal grounds gave preference and recognition to Christianity. This raises a valid question: Should a government that touts itself as by the people and for the people explicitly deny the will of the people? 

Because of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, part of which states that “No state … shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws,” most of the Bill of Rights have been applied to the states through incorporation, applying not only to the federal level, but also to the state and local levels of government. Therefore, Ellwood City, through a narrow and abstract scope, seemed to be legally obliged to remove its municipal creche.

In December 2012, the borough did just that, though the decision was difficult and remains unpopular. The reality was that the group would continue its fight until the town’s resources were exhausted and its legal victory was ensured.

Unfortunately, this episode is indicative of modern outlooks on church, state and the freedoms of communities across the country. It was not an unjustified response to a reasonable request. It was not ignorant, unfounded or baseless.

Rather, Ellwood City is a microcosm, one that reveals an unfortunate trend spreading across America — that is, the trend favoring the unreasonable will of the few against the justified and peaceful will of the many.

Similar instances have occurred across the nation from Santa Monica, Calif., to Canonsburg, Pa. In these various locations, nativity scenes are coming down and people’s benevolent values are being attacked.

In 1989, the Supreme Court decided in County of Allegheny v. ACLU that a nativity scene in the Allegheny County Courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh was unconstitutional. This issue has reached across the country and interfered with the traditions of Middle America.

The separation of church and state is part of the foundation upon which this country has been built. The separation of church and state, however, goes both ways. 

The pendulum has swung disproportionately in favor of members of such groups as the Freedom from Religion Foundation and away from members of church- and faith-based groups that constitute an overwhelming majority in traditional small towns like Ellwood City.

It is true that the government should refrain from mandating a required religion. The First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause continues the Establishment Clause by reiterating that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” 

Citizens are provided the right to practice their religion peacefully and in the manner they wish. If an overwhelming majority of citizens in a small town wish to enjoy a nonthreatening, benevolent piece of art on a certain patch of grass, no matter by whom it is owned, they have and deserve nothing less than the right to do so.

As previously mentioned, a legal argument can be made against the allowance of such a scene. Those arguments, however, tend to be narrow and subjective. 

The residents of Ellwood City and of other small towns across America are hardworking people without time for petty maneuvering of constitutional clauses to justify the ridiculous claims that an innocent nativity scene infringes upon nonbelievers’ civil rights.

If every citizen was legally bound and forced to accept Christianity as truth, then the borough would be acting in an unconstitutional manner because of both the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause. However, displaying a scene that reflects the views of the majority of a community’s members is not restricting freedom, but celebrating it.

In fact, a borough’s municipal building is the optimal place to represent the benevolent view of a group of its citizens. We too often forget that another major foundation upon which this country was built is popular sovereignty. Government, when regarding peaceful principles and values, should not dictate the will of the people. 

Rather, the peaceful will of the people should dictate the actions of government. If the time has come when a small interest group from another state can come into a community and dictate policy and action, then the pendulum has swung too far in the wrong direction.

The people of towns and communities should have the greatest say in their respective homes. 

That is America. That is freedom. 

That is government of the people, by the people and for the people and shall remain so as long as liberty and sovereignty are foundations upon which we aim to build the future. 

Write Matt at [email protected].