Foundations of religious freedom

Thomas V. DiBacco's splendid review [``200 years of religious liberty,'' Jan. 16] shows the history of Jefferson and Madison's disestablishment of Virginia's state church, the Anglican Church. An article the previous day [``Two hundred years later, Jefferson's church-state `wall' is still under siege''] states that the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom ``was later used by James Madison to frame the so-called religious `establishment clause' of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.''

Actually, Madison tried to do that but failed. Raoul Berger outlines this history in the 1980 Wisconsin Law Review 803: ``. . . Madison's proposed Bill of Rights recommended that `no state' shall violate the equal rights of conscience, or the freedom of the press.' This, Madison urged, was `the most valuable amendment in the whole list.' Madison's version of the amendment prevailed in the House but was rejected by the Senate.''

Finally, accurate research reveals that both Jefferson and Madison knew that the ``wall of separation'' was not in the Constitution. Leslie B. Gray Sparks, Nev.

Curtis Sitomer states, ``In recent years, the Supreme Court has philosophically adopted a so-called `three-prong test' which outlaws that which would set up a state religion, favors one faith over another, or entangles the secular and religious sectors.''

The three prongs are: (a) the governmental policy being challenged on establishment grounds must have a secular purpose, (b) its primary effect must neither advance nor inhibit religion, and (c) it must not involve an excessive entanglement with religious matters.

Concerning the first prong, the court has in fact said that a given law might not establish or ``set up a state religion'' but nevertheless be one ``respecting'' that end in the sense of being a step that could lead to such establishment and hence be in violation of the First Amendment. Its purpose must be secular. The recent ``accommodationist'' twist is that the court now has ruled that the law's purpose may not be an exclusively secular one.

Concerning the second prong, the court specifically rejected the theory that the First Amendment merely outlaws favoritism toward a particular religion, holding instead that the governments may aid neither one particular religion nor all religions.

The ``accommodationist'' approach is to allow for some benefit to religion so that neutrality of treatment can be upheld (such as when religious student groups ask for the same access to use of schoolrooms as nonreligious groups have). Karl Andresen Eau Claire, Wis.

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