Orleans Parish School Board Vice President Opposes Separation of Church and State

Leslie Ellison

At last week's meeting of the Orleans Parish School Board during a discussion of the board's anti-bullying policy, a spectator asked School Board Vice President Leslie Ellison whether she believed in the separation of church and state. Ellison's response was, "There is no such thing."

In the comments section of the Times-Picayune article reporting on that meeting, Danielle Dreilinger, who wrote the article, added a public statement that she had received from School Board VP Ellison's office regarding Ellison's quoted disavowal of the separation of church and state:

"The entire notion of such a separation was taken from a letter--not policy or legislation-- written by President Thomas Jefferson in the 1800s. In this letter, he noted that the religious freedoms and rights granted to citizens in the U.S. Constitution would build a 'wall of separation between Church and State,' which would protect religion from governmental interference and not the opposite. Since that time, however, the original reference to the separation of Church and State has been taken out of context and has become an issue of confusion and debate. The truth is that the separation of Church and State does not exist constitutionally. It does not exist in the U.S. constitution or the Louisiana constitution. I took and continue to uphold a constitutional oath of office."
 -- Leslie Ellison, Vice President, Orleans Parish School Board, District 4

So, Ellison had the opportunity to study the issue (by consulting with the school board attorney, checking Wikipedia, asking a 9th grade civics student, whatever) and correct her mistake, but instead she decided to double-down on her public ignorance.

Here's what Thomas Jefferson wrote in his letter to the Danbury Baptists:

"Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties."

In his letter Jefferson wasn't coming up with a new "notion." He was explaining what the First Amendment did.

There can be reasonable disagreement about what the separation of church and state requires, but there is no reasonable disagreement about whether the Constitution requires the separation of church and state.

Thomas Jefferson was, of course, not just any old letter-writer. He was one of the main Founding Fathers. Chief Justice of the United States Morrison Waite recognized that in 1879 when he quoted Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists (including the part about the First Amendment "building a wall of separation between Church & State) in the Court's majority opinion in Reynolds v. United States. Regarding that quote, Chief Justice Waite wrote,"Coming as this does from an acknowledged leader of the advocates of the measure, it may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the amendment thus secured."

In the 1947 Supreme Court case of Everson v. Board of Education, both the majority opinion by Justice Hugo Black and the dissenting opinion by Justice Wiley Rutledge agreed that the First Amendment required the separation of church and state.

If any one person can be credited with authorship of the First Amendment, it would be James Madison. In the document that historians call his "Detached Memorandum" (in which, by the way, he declared his opposition to the hiring of Congressional chaplains at public expense on the grounds that the practice violated the First Amendment), Madison wrote"Strongly guarded as is the separation between Religion & Govt in the Constitution of the United States the danger of encroachment by Ecclesiastical Bodies, may be illustrated by precedents already furnished in their short history.” (Okay, Madison called it separation between religion and government instead of separation of church and state, but, if anything, that language makes the point even more strongly.)

Claiming that there is no constitutional guarantee of the separation of church and state because the phrase "separation of church and state" does not appear in the Constitution is like saying that there is no constitutional guarantee of a fair trial because the term "fair trial" does not appear in the Constitution.

It's a ridiculous idea that relies on hyperliteralism to the exclusion of the historical record, legal reasoning, common sense, and basic logic. That it's been endorsed by a major figure in one of Louisiana's largest school systems reveals something important about what's wrong with pubic education in this state.

Mark Twain wrote, "In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards." Leslie Ellison is almost making me a believer.

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