These days, when people speak of “The Wall,” they are not usually referencing a Pink Floyd album. They’re likely talking about President Donald Trump’s proposed $20 billion structure he’d like to erect along our southern border.
Americans have a variety of views about immigration and the wisdom of constructing this barrier. We will doubtless continue that debate. What I find unfortunate is that when we hear talk about “the wall,” the assumption is it must be a reference to Trump’s border edifice.
In fact, there is another wall that has been a feature of our republic since its inception, a wall that is being chipped away on a daily basis. This is the “Wall of Separation Between Church and State” that Thomas Jefferson spoke of so eloquently in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists. This is the wall we truly need, and right now it is in danger of collapsing due to 1,000 hits administered by the far-right religious zealots who have managed to work their way into our government.
As Americans United has pointed out, we live in an age where the president has issued an order that prevents people from entering this country on the basis of religion. His administration has backed new restrictions on birth-control access and personal reproductive choice. He has vowed to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment so houses of worship can endorse or oppose candidates.
And there’s more, including using so-called “religious freedom” laws as a tool for people to discriminate against the LGBTQ community, vouchers to pay for religious schools, allowing overtly religious displays in public buildings, etc. The list goes depressingly on and on.
We’re one year into the Trump-Pence administration, and it’s obvious that the White House, backed by allies in Congress, in the states and in the Religious Right, is going to keep right on assaulting the separation of church and state.
If we are to maintain our precious grip on the concept of “liberty and justice for all,” we need to keep the wall of separation between church and state strong, secure and inviolable.
In a land where people are judged worthy or unworthy to cross our borders based on their religious beliefs, liberty and justice die.
In a land where the ability to access the reproductive health care of your choice is crushed by someone else’s religious beliefs, liberty and justice die.
In a land where people can hide behind their interpretation of religious texts to justify discrimination against those they don’t like because of their skin color, sexual orientation, gender identification or contrary religious beliefs, liberty and justice die.
In a land where public schools that welcome everyone in the community and strive to provide a first-class secular education are starved of funds so that taxpayer money can be shifted to private sectarian academies that indoctrinate their students with one particular religious point of view, liberty and justice die.
In a land where houses of worship receive tax exemption but are still free to meddle in elections by issuing fiats on which candidates should or should not receive support, liberty and justice die.
In a land that favors certain religious beliefs over others (including non-belief), liberty and justice die.
In the words of James Madison, the author of the Bill of Rights: “During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.”
Some walls are indeed built on ignorance and fear and serve to divide us. Jefferson’s and Madison’s wall isn’t one of them. It is built on enlightenment and stands as a vital protector of freedom of conscience. It is a wall that has served as a bulwark of individual liberty, and as such, it is a force for unity.
It deserves the support of every American of goodwill.
Jonathan Engel is an attorney in New York City. His father, Steven Engel, was the lead plaintiff in the landmark 1962 school prayer case Engel v. Vitale.