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Separate but equal

To the Editor:

This is in response to the letter "J.T.-ACLU Q&A," printed in the Grosse Pointe News' Dec. 12 issue on the separation of church and state and prayer in public schools: The writer's discussion with "ACLU" was superficial, did not represent the full ACLU position, and may not have actually taken place.

The executive director of the ACLU of Michigan said that, to her knowledge, no one in that office was involved in the discussion.

We would like to refer J. T. to the ACLU Briefing Paper on Church and State cited at the end of this letter.

The principle of separation of church and state was articulated by the framers of the Constitution. Prior to the adoption of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, no state had a single "established" church, but five states had multiple established churches and, under the cloak of government authority, the established denominations often persecuted the members of minority religions. Baptists, Quakers, Jews and others were denied the right to hold public office and were required to pay taxes to support the established religions.

Framers of the Constitution saw the need and importance of "disestablishment" and made it their first priority in writing the 10 amendments. Thomas Jefferson wrote of the need for a "wall of separation between church and state."

Various U.S. Supreme Court decisions over the years have interpreted how the First Amendment applies in cases that have come before it involving a range of questions between the people, religion and the state. In 1947, in Everson vs. Board of Education, the Supreme Court proclaimed "The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We would not approve the slightest breach."

Commitment to the separation of church and state is not an anti-religion stance. Indeed, it is the best guarantee that each individual has the right to practice his or her religion, without coercion, hostility or violence.

Keeping religion out of the hands of government is our guarantee for continued religious freedom and religious harmony. Religious diversity in the United States is not an accident: The First Amendment's "free exercise" clause has allowed the proliferation of more than 1,500 different religious bodies and 360,000 churches, mosques and synagogues and their coexistence in relative harmony.

No where else in the world is this true.

How, when, where and to whom children should pray is a decision that can only be made by their families and not forced upon students by their schools.

Muslim, Jewish or Hindu parents don't want their children to participate in Christian observances, for example, and atheist parents don't want their children to pray at all. Children whose religious beliefs are different from those of the majority must not be made to feel like outsiders in their schools nor must religious participation be forced upon them. It must also be said that the "wall of separation" does not prevent children, even while in school, to privately express their religious thoughts without interference.

It is also important to remember that the Bill of Rights, as a restriction on the power of Congress, was intended to protect each individual, especially those who held beliefs contrary to the majority. We must zealously protect those rights and that is the total mission of the ACLU. Our constitutional democracy is based on majority rule, but not to the extent of tyrannizing the minority.

A fuller discussion on the subject can be found in the ACLU Briefing Paper, Church and State, available at the ACLU of Michigan, 60 W. Hancock in Detroit (313) 578-6800. Portions of the above were taken from that paper.

Nicholas P. Kondak

Ann Kondak

Grosse Pointe Woods

Nicholas P. Kondak
December 26, 2002

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