In a letter to the Danbury Baptists Association of Connecticut dated 1 January 1801, Thomas Jefferson penned this famous line, saying “…that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise of religion thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.”1
When we dig in to the history of our Union and who we are as a nation, we find that the erosion of that wall has occurred across the over two centuries since that line was penned. Until the 1950s the motto of our nation wasn’t “One Nation Under God,” this new affectation was added under PL 84-140 and signed into law by Eisenhower.2 The U.S. Supreme Court has largely been the bulwark that protects this grand wall of separation. The elevation of three conservative justices to the bench by the Trump administration belies the potential weakness of relying on the Court. Already the new court has flexed their “religious freedom” doctrine to throw out COVID gathering restricts in New York State.3
Under this backdrop, we turn to the state of freedom from religion in the State of Florida as it relates to public schools. The Republican controlled government has taken a two pronged approach at pushing forth the agenda of the fundamentalist Christian minority. First, a bill passed the legislature mandating a moment or two of silence every day at every public school in a thinly veiled attempt to put prayer back in schools. The other prong of their approach is a revamp of the curriculum, pushing the nonsensical notion of so called Judeo-Christian values. A notion that is based on a marketing scheme and seeks to white-wash the very different viewpoints that the Jewish faith has towards abortion and other issues where the Talmud differs from the Christian Old Testament
The case law is clear – from Engle v. Vitale to Sante Fe Independent School District v. Doe – SCOTUS has found reason to uphold that wall of separation when it comes to our public schools by prohibiting prayer in schools . The Schempp ruling in the early 1960s upended existing Florida case law specifically reversing the Chamberlin case4. What remains unclear, given statements made by Justices Thomas and Alito is whether or not they will adhere to stare decisis when it comes to cases brought before the Court that deal with religious freedom5. Ultimately the ACLU or another organization will take it to the courts after DeSantis signs the bill, but for now it’s wait and see.
The other attack on separation of church and state is much more insidious. Pushing forth the notion that this is a Christian nation in public school curriculum undermines the very foundations of our nation. Our country wasn’t created as a theocracy, yet this is the path that Republicans seek to put us upon. One of the obvious pieces of this curriculum revamp is a provision that students ““recognize the influence of the Ten Commandments on establishing the rule of law in America”6 In all of the versions of the Ten Commandments, the primary problem with including this as foundational to our government is apparent in the very first commandment because it mentions God. Using this code of morals to define the cornerstone of a portion of curriculum is further muddled based on what version of the code is chosen. The fifth commandment says either “Thou Shall Not Murder” or “Thou Shall Not Kill” and those are not the same things under the law.
The State of Florida is set to be the test case – will we slide further down the path towards theocracy or will we maintain the wall?
Action is needed urgently to prevent the State Board of Education from enacting these curriculum reforms. Visit https://actionnetwork.org/letters/contact-the-state-board-of-education-now?source=direct_link& for more information.
Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo