Most Americans have a basic appreciation of the First Amendment’s separation of church and state, often supported by grade school history and civics lessons. (What is less widely known, however, is that our Founders feared more the state pushing into church affairs than the reverse.) They may, in fact, balk or disagree sometimes on interpretations of that separation, particularly as they affect matters such as school vouchers and taxpayer support for building repairs, among others. It seems settled that acceptance of deity in the Pledge of Allegiance and on paper money is not a mater that invokes partisanship.. Even events such as a National Prayer Breakfast at which major political figures speak fails to rattle the separation.
An opening religious homily or message is a fixture in legislatures from Congress to town councils. As a general rule, such presentations are generic blessings upon the legislators and their work, not upon the substance of the tasks that they undertake. In effect, a genteel wall of separation is maintained, one that exists with bipartisan approval and nonpartisan acceptance.
The wall of separation, when breached, causes a breakdown of an honored tradition, one that relies upon the forbearance of partisans to exist and be sustained.
As with any general rule and perhaps especially one in such close proximity to political decision making, the wall of separation, when breached, causes a breakdown of an honored tradition, one that relies upon the forbearance of partisans to exist and be sustained. Recently, a Warrenton, VA, pastor, invited by a Republican delegate in the Virginia Assembly, in his turn to give the opening prayer, delivered stinging remarks condemning abortion and gay marriage and invoking the name of God to bring his wrath against those who don’t follow his biblical principles. As the pastor left the podium, a man accompanying him posed a question to a group of reporters, asking whether they were aware that sodomy was once considered an offense worthy of capital punishment.
The Speaker of the House ultimately ended the prayer by banging her gavel and moving right into the Pledge of Allegiance. Both Republican and Democratic delegates condemned the presentation, while the delegate who issued the invitation offered no comment.
While religious jeremiads may be acceptable in houses of worship protected by the First Amendment, freedom from religion is an equally cherished value born from a foundation of concerns of the Founding Fathers as they considered the experience of European nations with rule by the tandem of religion and monarchies. Every breach of the wall of separation is a setback to the freedom from and of religion. In this case, the breach also exacerbates the partisan gulf in Commonwealth politics.
One delegate, also a pastor, remarked that the event was disrespectful to all in the House of Delegates. Those who encourage confrontations of this type endanger both Constitutional freedoms and bipartisanship. It may be that this breach reflects a mere lapse in judgment, in procedure, or both. That is the kindest opinion.