R.I. state representative Carol McEntee (D-Dist. 33) recently excoriated Church leaders for seemingly ignoring the U.S. Constitution’s requirement of the separation of church and state. In reference to her public stance on abortion, Ms. McEntee argued in “The Providence Journal” that fellow legislators must not allow their “religious beliefs to get in the way of our civic obligation as elected officials.” The abortion lobby has used this trick for decades, but it lacks even the semblance of logic.
First, abortion is not primarily a religious issue. Even an atheist can agree that dismembering a human person in the womb is morally reprehensible. But Ms. McEntee’s constitutional mythos requires further analysis beyond the inaccuracy of her abortion rhetoric. The First Amendment, which prohibits Congress from establishing a state religion, never mentions the separation of church and state. Early framers like Jefferson did use terms such as “wall of separation” regarding religion and government. But as our own Roger Williams opined in 1635, this wall was meant to protect the “garden of the church” from the “wilderness of the world.” The framers never envisioned silencing religious voices from the public square.
Anti-Catholic bigotry in the nineteenth century fueled the genesis of a much less benign view of the separation of church and state, excluding religious ideas from public discourse and prohibiting the government from assisting religious entities, such as schools. As Justice Clarence Thomas argued in Mitchell v. Helms, nothing in the Establishment Clause requires this strict separation. “This doctrine, born of bigotry, should be buried now,” the Justice wrote in reference to prejudice against Catholic entities. Should Ms. McEntee and fellow adherents follow their own logic, then they must also rebuke U.S. Senator Mitt Romney for invoking his religious beliefs to convict the President on abuse of power. That’s unlikely. Citizens — Catholic and non-Catholic alike — should never fear appealing to religious convictions in the public square. The Constitution gives them every right to do so.