The fine line of separation of church and state

Wednesday, September 26th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Where do we draw the line that separates church and state? It's a debate nearly as old as the Constitution itself.

Last week, Broken Arrow school marquees with banners reading "God Bless America" stirred both sides of the issue when some folks felt the religious reference violated that delicate balance. The School Board even called a special meeting to bring the community back together. But where is the line drawn between religion and government?

News on Six reporter Heather Brooker talked with leaders on both sides of the issue and has a closer look at how "fine" that "line" really is. Americans have varied opinions on what the founding fathers intended for separation of church and state. "Personally, I think it violates the freedom of religion and the freedom of speech. I feel like without separation of church and state you're putting people in the hot seat who don't believe in a particular prayer religion or whatever."

In reality, the constitution says nothing about separation of church and state. The First Amendment states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." TU law professor, Gary Allison, "What it basically means is that government shouldn't be involved in promoting religion." Allison says the phrase comes from a letter written between two of the founding fathers. And it was interpreted in the 1940's by the US Supreme Court. "What the Supreme Court has discovered is that there can be no official land prayer in any form in any school activity."

Allison says separation of church and state doesn't mean that everything that's religious stays out of government, and everything that's government-related stays out of religion. Church leaders say it does mean you have the right to worship w/o infringing on the rights of others. Lonnie Latham, "When it comes to my free exercise of how I want to worship God by the constitution I’m given that opportunity to do that." "At the same time as the government cannot infringe on that right I should not expect the government to subsidize that right."

Both say the original words of the founding fathers are up for individual interpretation. And they agree, the bottom line is the First Amendment doesn't mean government should promote or degrade any religion. Allison says the same generation that drafted the first amendment, also brought in chaplains to pray over congress and state legislatures. So he says the issue of separation of church and state has been divided for more than 200 years.