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Gary M. Galles - Contributor

Mr. Galles is a professor of econmics at Pepperdine University.

The Pledge And The Clause
Roger Williams' 400th birthday and the establishment clause
[Gary M. Galles] 11/14/03

The Supreme Court has accepted the appeal of Elk Grove, California Unified School District v. Newdow -- and will now decide whether the insertion of the phrase "One nation, under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance constitutes an unconstitutional intrusion into the separation of church and state.

This caps a year of unusual foment in church-state relations, with issues ranging from whether the Ten Commandments can be displayed in state courthouses, to the introduction of President Bush's Faith-Based Initiative. The timing is ironic, given that 2003 marks the 400th birthday of Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island, who first and most forcefully argued for what eventually became our First Amendment protection against a government establishment of religion.

Roger Williams -- then regarded as a man of heretical beliefs and dangerous opinions -- believed that civil authorities had no power over matters of conscience, but that all religious sects had the right to equal protection from persecution under the laws. This conviction got him banished from Salem, Massachusetts, which, in turn, led him to establish Providence in 1636 -- a place that became America's refuge for those persecuted for their religious beliefs.

As Williams wrote, "Enforced uniformity confounds civil and religious liberty and denies the principles of Christianity and civility. That cannot be a true religion which needs carnal weapons to uphold it. No man should be required to worship or maintain worship against their will."

Later, the 1663 royal charter for Rhode Island and Providence Plantations granted absolute liberty of conscience, stating that no one could be molested "for any difference of opinion in matters of religion." And that charter was put into practice. Williams founded the First Baptist Church in Providence, and Rhode Island was the site of the first Jewish synagogue in America, as well as a safe haven for dissenters and Quakers, who were persecuted in other colonies.

It is hard to overstate the importance of Williams' path-breaking stand. Historian Cyclone Covey has noted that, at a time of government sponsorship of state churches with mandatory tax support, "Roger Williams...was the first American to advocate and activate complete freedom of conscience, dissociation of church and state, and genuine political democracy." Under Williams, Rhode Island, along with Connecticut, enjoyed greater freedom from government intrusion than any other American colony.

And Rhode Island Senator William Sprague stated in 1872, "Roger Williams...successfully vindicated the right of private judgment in matters of conscience, and effected a moral and political revolution in all governments of the civilized world..."

Even Thomas Jefferson echoed Roger Williams in his famous 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, which stated: "AIl 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."

Some take the current tumult over church-state issues to indicate that America is still fighting the battle Roger Williams began long ago. But in fact, it means he has already won. The First Amendment to the Constitution, as well as Article VI's then-controversial ban of any religious test as a qualification for office enshrined Williams' view in the highest law of our land. Despite heated disputes, what we are debating today is orders of magnitude removed from an establishment of a state religion.

Roger Williams' legacy for America is safe. We maintain our freedom to worship as our conscience leads us, and we are near no slippery slope toward a state religion. Nothing we are fighting over today, even when conducted at a high volume, provides any prospect of carrying us back to what he spearheaded the fight against. That is no guarantee the Supreme Court will look past some questionable precedents to recognize that fact. But even if it accepts arguments whose interpretations strain at gnats while swallowing camels, we should still celebrate how much America has benefited from the inheritance Roger Williams left us.

copyright 2003 Gary M. Galles




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