About what the Constitution doesn't say

-A A +A
By Rick Howell

When I was at Lynchburg College, I took a wonderful Constitutional Law class as part of my political science major. We studied a great number of U.S. Supreme Court cases, and not just the ones - such as Roe v. Wade - that we’ve all heard of, but other cases lesser known that led to more dramatic decisions.

What I learned from that class is something that many “Christian nation” types just can’t grasp: The Constitution only means, at a given time, what the courts say it means. Governments at all levels pass laws and the courts interpret those laws. They refer to the same document we’ve had since the Constitutional Convention (with added amendments), but they very often see it differently over time.

For example, in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that blacks basically had no rights that white men were bound to respect. Using that same Constitution the court turned around in 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education, and said that racially segregated schools were certainly not “separate but equal.” Blacks had rights to a quality education, after all, whether or not it was spelled out specifically in the Constitution.

Therefore, any reaction to the Constitutional doctrine of church/state separation that begins with the sentence “the Constitution never says the words ‘separation of church and state’” is an utterly meaningless statement.

I challenge any gun enthusiast to show me where that document says specifically: “An individual has a right to own a gun.” It’s not in there, is it? In the Second Amendment, the “right to bear arms” is referenced only in regard to a militia. Yet, the courts have said that the right to gun ownership applies to individuals, too. It’s a matter of interpretation, not what’s literally written.

To suggest that laws can only be based upon what is specifically spelled out in the Constitution is a display of ignorance. The First Amendment states clearly that our national government cannot “establish” a religion. The courts have confirmed that. Sorry, folks. But there goes your “Christian nation” right down the drain. Also flushed is the “Jewish nation,” or the “Muslim nation,” etc. We are to be a country with a secular government, not a religious one. Pure and simple, and right out of the First Amendment.

As for my account of how Gideons disrupted a local classroom, I never mischaracterized anything. The Gideons acted exactly as I stated it and the school system was correct to adopt a policy that no longer allows religious groups to proselytize on school property.

I never cease to be amazed at the way some self-styled “Christians” are in the habit of ignoring “Judge not that ye be not judged” from their very Bible and condemn the souls of Barry Lynn and others who believe in church/state separation. To put quotes around the word reverend when referring to Lynn, or to say outright that he can’t be a “man of God,” as one letter suggested, is to judge his very soul. I thought Christians weren’t supposed to do that.

As always, I respect and appreciate responses to this column that disagree with me in an informed, articulate and intelligent manner. Responses that are nothing more than insulting personal attacks say far more about the writer than they ever could about me. I won’t accept moral judgments passed against me by individuals who aren‘t divine.

I’ll be glad to lay out for anyone who needs it all the Supreme Court decisions that have affirmed what Thomas Jefferson and James Madison believed was best for this country: that the church and the state operate separately. They were right then; The Rev. Barry Lynn and the majority of Americans who recognize church/state separation are right today.

Rick Howell, a Bedford native, is a member of the Roanoke City Democratic Committee, and can be reached by e-mail at NewCenHowell@aol.com.