‘Separation of Church and State’ Myths and the Ohio Issue 1 Abortion Battle
On Tuesday, Ohioans have a very important decision to make. Issue 1 on every Ohioans’ ballot will enshrine one of the most vague — and thus up to extreme interpretations — rights to “reproductive medical treatment, including but not limited to abortion…” into our state Constitution. As this is considered a self-executing constitutional amendment and not a proposed statute, the state legislature will have absolutely no ability to amend this later down the line, unless a second constitutional amendment is put on the ballot, revising the first.
So, what does this mean in real life? According to Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost (R), this amendment would allow post-viable babies to be aborted based on one doctor’s application of the word “health.” Attorney General Yost explains: “The Amendment does not define ‘health,’ and previous court cases have said health, when not otherwise defined, can include other concerns, including mental health and ‘familial’ factors (such as how many children someone has) and maternal age.”
Even more alarmingly, this amendment would very easily erode parental consent for a minor considering an abortion at any stage. Yost continues, “The Amendment does not specifically address parental consent. However, the parental-consent statute would certainly be challenged on the basis that Issue 1 gives abortion rights to any pregnant ‘individual,’ not just to a ‘woman.’ If Issue 1 passes, the question for a court will be whether the term ‘individual’ includes a ‘minor.’ There is no guarantee that Ohio’s parental-consent law will remain in effect.”
So, how did we get here? How did we get to a place where everyday citizens are having such extreme measures placed before them? If I were to pick the moment this is in retaliation for, I would have to say it was April 10, 2019. That was the day Am. Sub SB 23, The Heartbeat Bill, finally passed both the Ohio House and Senate and was sent to the governor.
I remember that day. I remember it well. The Statehouse member I work for was the sponsor of the House version of Am. Sub SB 23 and was slated to speak on the floor on its behalf. That morning was a flurry of nerves and excitement as we went over her speech. As we practiced it multiple times, we decided to reorganize and edit her speech. Thus, by the time the vote was to happen at the one o’clock session, I felt completely spent.
So, I simply watched online as the session happened. My member got up and spoke very calmly, eloquently, and as she told me later, almost changed a few hearts and minds of colleagues. Other members of the House got up and made speeches in turn. Amendments were proposed and promptly laid upon the table.
But, then, the speaker called for the vote. The crowd gathered in the gallery erupted in jeers and screams. The speaker couldn’t even finish his sentence. He was trying to say, “With 56 yeas and 40 nays, having received the required Constitutional majority… having received the required Constitutional majority…”
Then, we all saw it. The crowds had brought in two huge banners and unfurled them over the top of the balcony, which displayed what looked like spray-painted letters. One said, “This Is Not A Doctor’s Office” and the other said “This Is Not A House of Worship.”
“This is not a house of worship…” Over and over we heard that. One by one people came in and said that abortion laws were simply religious zealotry being shoved down their throats. We were told we couldn’t pass protections for the unborn because of the “separation of church and state,” with witnesses swearing up and down it’s in the U.S. Constitution.
To those who use separation of church and state as a sword against those fighting for the unborn and other wholesome mores in the public square, I want to say (quoting “The Princess Bride”), “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Upon examining the Constitution, the phrase “separation of church and state” appears absolutely nowhere. Some may say that the First Amendment implies this due to the commonly known Establishment and Free Exercises clauses. However, if you do further digging into the history of the Constitution itself, you find a very different story.
The True Meaning of the Establishment Clause
First, let’s examine the Establishment Clause. If you go back through the congressional record and look at drafts of our Constitution, you will find that the Founders used the term “religion” and “denomination” interchangeably. Keep in mind, they were trying to unify independent, sovereign states, each of whom (except Rhode Island) had a Christian denomination as a part of their original charter.
As written by David Barton in the book “Separation of Church and State: What the Founders Meant,” the first three versions of the First Amendment stated that “Congress shall not make any law establishing any religious denomination…” The final draft used the term “establishing any religion,” but it was well understood and interpreted for the first 150 years of our history that this clause referred to denominations.
In the Free Exercise Clause, it simply prohibits the federal government from interfering with an individual’s public acknowledgments and expressions of faith. Barton continues by stating that the Founding Fathers were simply saying there would be no single federal denomination to rule America. However, there certainly was the expectation that basic biblical principles would be present in public life and society by ensuring the federal government could not infringe on an individual’s religious (or denominal) expression.
Those who know a little more history know that this “separation of church and state” phrase, used to filet any attempt at a Judeo-Christian society, or even a moral society, was from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802. In October of 1801, they wrote him concerned religious liberties under the new U.S. Constitution established in March 1789. They write: “…That no man out to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious Opinions…”
Jefferson’s response letter, parsed and quoted by leftists, simply says that the Constitution does indeed guarantee religious freedom. He writes:
“…Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State…”
However, when one digs even deeper, Thomas Jefferson was not even the first to use this term “separation of church and state.” That honor belongs to the first governor of Rhode Island, Roger Williams. His colony was indeed unique in the fact that it was the only one without a state denomination as a part of its charter.
This is not to say Williams was some sort of atheist or hedonist by any stretch of the imagination. Even according to Smithsonian Magazine, “Williams’ most implacable enemies never questioned his piety. His devotion to God informed everything he did — his thinking, his writing, his actions…For him to omit any mention of God in this political compact underscored his conviction that to assume God embraced any state other than ancient Israel profaned Him and signified human arrogance in the extreme.”
Williams originally came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where he was offered the highest religious position (Pastorate of the Church of Boston) and declined it. Williams vehemently disagreed with the leadership of the colony who believed the state must prevent error in religion. He disagreed after seeing what they had just fled in England.
As a youth, Williams was a witness to King James’s use of the kingship/government to fashion the Bible itself to his liking. In 1604, King James order a new English translation of the Bible, as he believed the current English translations (namely the Geneva Bible) did not significantly emphasize obedience to authority.
Williams eventually had to flee the Massachusetts Bay Colony and found refuge in Narragansett Bay. Then, he went back to England to argue for a charter for his land to create the colony of Rhode Island, one that would have a “lively experiment” or “soul libertie.”
His battle arguing for this colony back in England was certainly an uphill one. There in London amid civil war, he argued for what he began calling “Soul Libertie.” Williams described the true church as a magnificent garden, unsullied and pure, resonant of Eden. The world he described as “the Wilderness,” a word with personal resonance for him. Then he used for the first time a phrase he would use again, a phrase that although not commonly attributed to him has echoed through American history. “[W]hen they have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wildernes of the world,” he warned, “God hathe ever broke down the wall it selfe, removed the Candlestick, & and made his Garden a Wildernesse.”
Thus, the phrase of “wall of separation between Church and State” or simply “separation of Church and State” was born. On March 14, 1644, Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Plantations granted Williams his charter.
The Establishment Clause Is a Shield to Protect Values
Now that we see the original intent was to ensure the state did not corrupt the church, let’s examine the application of this policy. Was Rhode Island a haven for hedonistic behaviors condoned by this civil government? Not in the slightest.
According to the History of the Criminal Code of Rhode Island, “These are the principal acts declared criminal, by this code, and according to the last clause of it ‘otherwise than thus what is herein forbidden all men’ might ‘walk as their consciences persuaded them, every one in the fear of his God…’ High Treason, murder, petit treason, including therein treason against the colony, manslaughter, witchcraft, burglary, robbery, arson, including the burning of barns having corn therein, rape and the crimes against nature, were punishable capitally.”
In today’s vernacular, various kinds of betrayal of the colony, including murder, witchcraft, robbery, arson, rape, and sexual perversions of various kinds, were all punishable by death. Additionally, there were severe, strict rules if someone was to own a tavern in the colony. Public drunkenness was heavily fined.
Roger Williams was a devoutly religious man until his death and the founder of one of the first Baptist churches in America. So, before anyone goes to vote on Tuesday, let’s not use his words as a sword to attack legislation promoting family values. Let it be the shield for the unsullied pure garden of the church against a government’s corrupting influence.
Amanda Magoteaux works as a legislative aide in the Ohio Statehouse and was a former intern with Family Research Council.