ACLU, fighting the good fight

Honoring the past
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  September 17, 2009

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If the Rhode Island ACLU could tap any two figures to headline its 50th anniversary event, it might choose Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson. And so it has.

William Hutchinson, Rhode Island College professor emeritus and actor, and Marilyn Meardon, storyteller and actor, will play the eminent Rhode Islanders, joining a religion scholar and attorneys in a panel discussion on the separation of church and state.

"Free to Believe: Defending Religious Freedom in Rhode Island" will take place September 24 at 7 pm at a church founded by Williams in 1638: the First Baptist Church in America, 75 North Main Street, Providence. Admission is free.

Local attorneys who brought landmark church/state cases before the federal Supreme Court will discuss the history and legal positions of the American Civil Liberties Union on the subject, as well as what the US Constitution has to say. Moderating the discussion will be Stephen Marini, professor of religion at Wellesley College, and also participating will be Brown University chaplain Rev. Janet Cooper-Nelson.

There have been two cases on the subject in Rhode Island successfully brought before the US Supreme Court. In 1990, in Yang v. Sturner, the Court ruled in favor of a Hmong family whose son was autopsied despite their religious beliefs. Two years later, in Weisman v. Lee, a public school's practice of incorporating an invocation and benediction into their graduation ceremony was ruled unconstitutional.

But whatever the jurisprudence, the separation of church and state remains contested ground.

The First Amendment to the Constitution instructs Congress to "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

"The phrasing is ambiguous," said Marini. "No one quite knows what 'respecting' means. And 'establishment of religion' is taken to mean the government working as an agency to promote the exclusive privilege of one religion over at the other; or any religion over another; or religion over non-religion, or vice versa. It's a very broadened kind of cumbersome category.

"Any time a state, for example — we got a lot of these lately — either a state agency or county or town, fires someone because they're supposed to work on Saturday but they observe the Sabbath on Saturday, that becomes 'establishment,' because you're imposing an orthodoxy on people," he said.

He continued. "And then you get, in places like Kansas, the red zone of the country, arguments that the teaching of evolution in public schools is the imposition of a secular religion on the citizens of the state, and they have sued to stop it on religious grounds, on establishment grounds. So it's a category that tends to be used a lot of different ways."

Frankly, the Founding Fathers could have been clearer.

"The logic of the amendment is the problem," Marini said. "The one clause is the inverse of the other. It doesn't always make sense then, when a case comes along, which clause should we apply; do they contradict each other. It's very oddly phrased, the way the founders did."

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