Church and State:
A Salute to the Supremes

By Michelle Mairesse


      The good folks of Santa Fe, Texas are mostly Baptists, and they probably haven't given much thought to the history embodied in their town's name. Santa Fe means "Holy Faith" in the tongue of the Spaniards who founded and dedicated the city in honor of their Catholic majesties back in Spain. Because they believed theirs was the true faith, the conquering Spaniards systematically extirpated Native American religions, sometimes hurrying the process by "baptizing" local deities and returning them to the natives in another guise. (The dark Virgin of Guadalupe, for example, was originally a Mexican goddess.)

     In the nineteenth century, the mostly Protestant Yankees annexed what is now Texas and superimposed yet another culture and another religion on Santa Fe. In time, the dominant language became American English and the dominant religion became southern Baptist and football.

     In 1999, with the concurrence of the school board, which passed out Gideon Bibles and allowed students to deliver prayers at graduations and other school-sponsored events, Santa Fe high school students elected a Baptist minister's daughter to deliver the invocation "in the name of Jesus" over a loudspeaker before each home game. Two parents, one Catholic, one Mormon, repeatedly sued the school board for promoting religion in the public schools and violating the constitutional separation of religions and state. Their suit eventually reached the United States Supreme Court, which ruled 6-3 in their favor on June 19, 2000.

     To avoid the bloody religious conflicts of Europe, the founders banned all state sponsorship of religion. In short, the constitution enjoins strict religious neutrality on the government. The governments of Yugoslavia, Iran, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Israel, Egypt, etc., etc. would greatly benefit from such a clear-cut distinction between the state and religion.

     Unfortunately, in the Santa Fe school board case, the three dissenting justices were all too willing to slide on the slippery slope. Chief Justice Rehnquist declared that the government need not be completely neutral towards religion. Predictably, Thomas and Scalia agreed with him. Clearly, these guys need a refresher course in constitutional law. In 1987, it was Rehnquist and Scalia who dissented from the majority opinion that the Louisiana legislature could not force the schools to give equal time to teaching evolution and "creation science." In Louisiana, what "creation science" boils down to is the mythical creation story in Genesis. Did the legislators also envision that Louisiana schools give equal time to the myriad creation stories extant among Native Americans, Hindus, Buddhists, and Scientologists?

     The advocates of prayer, Bible-reading, and posting the ten commandments in the schools just don't get it. Twenty-first century America is what Whitman called it in the nineteenth century--a nation of nations. Americans of German-immigrant descent are the largest ethnic group in the country, but their days of numeric dominance are numbered. If the projected population increase in California holds up, citizens of Hispanic descent will soon be the majority in the state, as they already are in San Antonio, Texas. Does that mean Roman Catholicism will become the majority religion? Not necessarily, for evangelistic Christianity is making converts among Latinos throughout the Americas.

     One thing is certain: As the population profile changes, the religious affiliation profile changes. At the present time, there are more Muslims than Episcopalians in the United States. In Alaska, Inuit shamans bless the hunt and conduct healing ceremonies. Witches covens assemble in designated power places. Some Haitian, Filipino, and Vietnamese polytheists sacrifice chickens on their altars. Buddhist and Muslim temples are going up all over the country. Hawaiian shamans violate state laws if they inflict their "death curse" on fellow citizens. The Native American Church, claiming 250,000 members, uses a court-sanctioned cactus psychedelic in its ceremonies. There is a statue and shrine to the ancient Egyptian goddess Sekhmet near Las Vegas.

     We may not like some of these manifestations of the religious impulse, but state toleration of religious diversity has historically proven to be the best policy. The founders, imbued with the political and philosophical concepts of the European Enlightenment, knew this truth and acted on it.

     Thanks, Supremes. Six of you, anyway.