Speaker discusses ‘Religion in Government and Government in Religion’


Steffen Horwath

Dr. Donald Grier Stephenson, former professor of political science with a specialty in constitutional law and current Charles A. Dana Professor of Government, Emeritus, at Franklin and Marshall College, discussed the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment at Wilkes on Nov. 9.

Dr. Donald Grier Stephenson visited Wilkes University on Nov. 9 to discuss and examine the Supreme Court’s evolving interpretation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment; specifically, how it relates to religion in government.

A former professor of political science, with a specialty in constitutional law, Stephenson is a Charles A. Dana Professor of Government, Emeritus, from Franklin and Marshall College.

Stephenson is also a former United States Army Intelligence Officer, attaining the rank of Captain, and was awarded the Joint Service Commendation Medal. He was assigned as Research Associate to the Faculty of The National War College at Fort McNair, Washington, D.C.

“Government… religion. When connected, those words remind us of a rock romance which can be strained at best and warlike at worst. Working out a smooth relationship between government and religion is even harder,” said Stephenson.

In his lecture, Stephenson discussed that of the 193 member-countries in the United Nations, not one is indifferent towards religion. He further went on to elaborate that if one country had an official religion, it can still maintain religious freedom(s) for all.

Stephenson also noted that both religion and government, and constituents who favor either, compete for power and influence.

“Government and religion are like opposite sides of a coin. On one side are ground rules imposed by the Constitution. On the other side is religion as one of many forces and factors in politics — as individuals and groups compete to control the government,” Stephenson said.

A common theme was discussed throughout the lecture: duality, which Stephenson articulately notated as a tension between two sets of values: accommodation, the older of two, and separation, the newer of the two.

Under the accommodationist belief, the government best serves its own purposes when it encourages religion generally, while tolerating other faiths as well.

“This seems to have been the dominant view in most of the American states at the end of the eighteenth century as our Constitution was written and ratified, and for a long time afterwards,” said Stephenson.

According to separationist beliefs, adherents believe that both political and religious institutions would more likely prosper if each left the other alone as much as possible in a land where most citizens were also believers.

Stephenson also discussed the free exercise clause of the First Amendment, one of the only sparse references to religion throughout the Constitution, reinforcing that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

“The free exercise clause carves out a sphere of religious practice free of interference by the government. The establishment clause limits government support of religious endeavors and, more importantly, is designed to prevent government from becoming the tool of faith against others,” said Stephenson.

Stephenson highlighted two supreme court cases wherein the government has waded into religious waters. The two cases highlighted were McCreary County v. A.C.L.U. of Kentucky, and Van Orden v. Perry. Both cases took place in 2005.

“The line between recognition and endorsement is apparently very thin indeed,” said Stephenson.

In McCreary County v. A.C.L.U. of Kentucky, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s invalidation of a courthouse display which included the Ten Commandments intermingled with various secular historical documents.

Ironically, on the same day that Kentucky verdict came down, Van Orden v. Perry found no constitutional violation in the presence of a monument on which the Ten Commandments had been inscribed that was located on the grounds of the Texas state capitol.

Finally, Stephenson highlighted one more decision where the government again wandered into religious territory: Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, which was decided last June. This case is significant, as it marked the first and only time where newly sworn Justice, Justice Neil Gorusch, participated in a vote regarding religious freedom.

Trinity Church, which believed it had been unfairly discriminated against over a dismission of federal funding for updates to a playground, which it provided as part of its daycare, looked to the Supreme Court, which overturned lower courts’ rulings, hence allowing the government funding.

“The title of my talk poses a question, but my goal is not to tell you what that answer is or what the answer ought to be. I don’t intend to tell you what to think, instead I want to suggest how you might think about the subject in the American context, so that you can arrive at your own conclusion and answer that question for yourself,” said Stephenson.