‘Strict Separationism’ Runs Amok
Houston, we have a problem.


Scott Rainey prayed on Memorial Day as he had originally proposed, including the Lord’s Prayer and this closing: “While respecting people of every faith today, it is in the name of Jesus Christ, the risen Lord, that I pray. Amen.” But now it seems that further “interferences” are exactly what has been going on, as alleged by the veterans and the Memorial Ladies. Their complaint brought the VA back into Judge Hughes’s courtroom on June 28, where the department’s lawyer was unable even to answer such simple factual questions as whether the chapel has been closed to public use. The government has until July 21 to answer the latest complaint of the veterans’ groups. Meanwhile, Congressman Ted Poe (R., Texas) has written to VA secretary Eric Shinseki, demanding an investigation — and the firing of Arleen Ocasio.

In some respects our problem comes from improvident opinions of the Supreme Court over the last seven decades in its rulings on the freedom of religion. The First Amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” By eliminating the power of political rulers to usurp or supplant ecclesiastical authority, and guaranteeing people’s freedom to exercise their religious faiths, the Framers made considerable headway against sectarian strife in American politics. But they struck no blow against sectarian belief, nor did they think that peace and diversity were well-served by a mandatory watery secularism in the public square.

This all changed in what legal scholar Gerard Bradley of Notre Dame calls the “secularization project” of the Supreme Court, beginning in the late 1940s. The justices enshrined Thomas Jefferson’s idea of a “wall of separation between church and state,” which, whatever Jefferson meant by it, has often been taken to mean zero accommodation for expressions of religious faith in public settings such as government offices, legislatures, and public schools. This secularist dogma has led some public officials to consider American citizens too sensitive and insecure in their own individual beliefs to risk exposing them to the differing beliefs of their fellow citizens, if the exposure is in a setting connected to civic authority. So in 1992, the Supreme Court invalidated the common practice of prayer at public high-school graduations, on grounds that someone hearing such utterances might feel discomfited by exposure to the prayers of a faith he does not share.

This kind of thinking may explain the action of Director Ocasio and her superiors at Veterans Affairs. In the name of extreme separationism, secularism, and hostility to sectarian faith — all a misunderstanding of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution — they have assaulted the religious freedom of veterans’ bereaved families, at a time when many of them feel they most need to lean on God. This is not the Constitution our forefathers made for us. This is bad history, bad law, bad morality, and tone-deaf politics.

The Department of Veterans Affairs should act according to a sound understanding of the Constitution and stop trying to dictate the content of citizens’ prayers. If Arleen Ocasio cannot act according to sound directives along these lines, she should resign or be terminated. And we should all pray — in our own individual ways — that our bureaucrats and judges stop making such an incoherent, anti-religious mess out of our Constitution, and get right with its plain meaning.

— William E. Simon Jr. is co-chairman of the William E. Simon Foundation. Matthew J. Franck is director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and Politics at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J.