Church v State in Georgia

Church-state proposal snubs history
Atlanta Journal Constitution
by Jay Bookman
Jan. 20, 2004

In a debate last week, state Sen. Tommie Williams suggested that separation of church and state was little more than a Communist plot. The only constitution in the history of the world that even mentions a separation of church and state was that of the Soviet Union, Williams claimed.

That’s very, very wrong.

In fact, proof of Williams’ error lay almost literally beneath his nose. At the time, he was speaking in favor of gutting Article 1, Section II, Paragraph VII of the Georgia Constitution. That paragraph reads, in its entirety:

“Separation of church and state: No money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect, cult or religious denomination or of any sectarian institution.”

That language was adopted by the people of Georgia in 1877, more than 40 years before the founding of the Soviet Union.

The effort to gut that restriction is part of a larger movement by Republicans to strip such guarantees from state constitutions all across the country. The eventual goal is to let conservative Christian groups tap into taxpayer money, giving them enormous resources to help spread their faith. In many cases, that crusade has followed an approved script, in which state guarantees of religious liberty are attacked as so-called “Blaine amendments.”

Blaine amendments do indeed have a vile history — they were added to many state constitutions in the 19th century as part of a vicious anti-Catholic movement and were intended to prevent the flow of tax money to Catholic parochial schools. Here in Georgia, Gov. Sonny Perdue is now citing that history of bigotry to insist that Georgia’s religious-liberty language be rendered invalid.

But Georgia’s provision is not a Blaine amendment. The language in our constitution actually has an honorable heritage and ought to be protected, not tossed aside.

Again, the evidence is strong. Paragraph VII was not added to our constitution as an amendment; it was simply part of a completely new state constitution. Unlike true Blaine amendments, Georgia’s provision makes no mention of public schools and in fact reads nothing like actual Blaine amendments. Most importantly, language creating a wall between church and state can be found in Georgia constitutions that date all the way back to 1777, long before the Blaine movement. In the state’s very first constitution, in Article LVI, our founding fathers thought it important to bar the use of tax money to support ministers, which until then had been common practice. Baptists in particular had insisted on that provision, because they believed that faith ought to be a matter between a person and God, with no role for government.

In fact, in state constitutions adopted after 1777, Georgia Baptists used their political power to strengthen the wall between church and state. The constitution of 1798 stated that no Georgia residents shall “ever be obliged to pay tithes, taxes or any other rate, for the building or repairing any place of worship, or for the maintenance of any minister or ministry.”

Even the phrase “separation of church and state” has a Baptist heritage. A group of Baptists from Danbury, Conn., had complained to President Thomas Jefferson that Connecticut was giving their tax money to government-favored churches. Jefferson responded in 1802 with a letter describing the wall between church and state that the First Amendment had tried to erect.

Amazingly, Perdue, Williams and others now trying to tear down the wall separating church from state are Baptists, the spiritual descendants of those who insisted that the wall be erected in the first place. Afraid of the power of government when it was held in the hands of others, they now find the resources of government so seductive that they cannot resist seizing them for their own.

Well, if they want to repudiate their religious birthright, that’s their business. But there’s no reason the rest of us have to go along with it.

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