To understand what is meant by a section of our Constitution, it is reasonable that the man instrumental in drafting it, our fourth President James Madison, who is also the author of the United States Bill of Rights, should be a primary source. He, along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, collaborated in producing the Federalists Papers, long considered one of the most polemic works regarding the Constitution.
I strongly support the separation of church and state. I believe the concept is a two-way street. Each is forbidden to control the other and that is good for both. Madison was instrumental in passing legislation that forbids government spending tax dollars in support of clergy. That was a good thing. However, the concept of separation is being violated currently in America. Increasingly, government is infringing on religion.
In speaking of religious freedom, Madison extracted a statement from our Declaration of Independence. He said it is an “unalienable right.”
Of religion he observed, “It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.”
That is a strong conclusion insisting that a person’s religious convictions should not be infringed upon by Civil Society.
Madison very judiciously used the term “Civil Society,” by which he meant the whole community that is responsible for controlling political authority.
Madison made it even more clear as to what he meant when he said with regard to political authority, “Religion is wholly exempt from (the) cognizance” of such authority.
If cognizance as used in this expression is not familiar, it means judicial action as taken by a court. Freedom of conscience is a right.
A case of government imposition on religious faith is the Health and Human Resources rule authorized by the Affordable Care Act requiring employees with more than 50 employees to provide contraceptive and abortifacient drugs. There are over 30 separate pending lawsuits in federal courts including more than 80 separate plaintiffs who believe this is in violation of their faith. Again, Madison said, “Religion is wholly exempt from (the) cognizance” of such authority.
Another example is the Hastings College of Law in San Francisco. The student chapter of the Christian Legal Society was denied status on campus because they would not abandon their requirements that members commit themselves to traditional norms regarding sexual morality. The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 vote, ruled that the action of the college did not violate the students’ rights. It did distinctly violate the rights of the students to establish their faith statement.
Madison used the term “multiplicity of sects” as a reference to various religious bodies. In doing so he insisted on political equality of all sects, meaning no denomination would be given preference over another. He insisted on “neither (Sect) invading the equal rights of any Sect, nor suffering any Sect to invade those of another.”
Individually and politically we do not have power over the conscience of our citizens. That is, we are not supposed to have it, but increasingly our government is exercising it.
“Religion is wholly exempt from (the) cognizance” of such authority.
The Rev. Dr. Nelson Price is pastor emeritus of Roswell Street Baptist Church.