A Lay Person's Guide to Church-State Law

By Bang-Thompson, Hyeyoung | Brigham Young University Law Review, January 1, 1999 | Go to article overview

A Lay Person's Guide to Church-State Law


Bang-Thompson, Hyeyoung, Brigham Young University Law Review


I. INTRODUCTION

That Godless Court?, by Ronald B. Flowers, presents the history of church-state relations in the United States through the use of Supreme Court decisions. Defending his position as a strict separationist in the area he refers to as the "relationships between religion and civil authority," Flowers is quick to point out that "[s]trict separation is not hostile to religion. . . but will provide the best conditions for religions to flourish . . . and [will] maximize the free exercise of religion."1 Flowers asserts that the church-state debate should not focus on whether the government can or should interfere with individual religious actions, but rather on what level of governmental interference is justified in preventing or limiting religious freedom.2

This Book Review examines, in particular, Flowers's advocacy of the use of the compelling state interest test and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to reconcile church-state relationships and concludes that his discussion fails to consider several key arguments which show that these concepts lack constitutional foundation. This Review also concludes that, while Flowers's book provides a practical and helpful overview of church-state issues prior to 1993, its lack of substantive analysis may misguide those readers who rely on its simplicity.

Part I of this Review provides an overview of Flowers's approach to the church-state debate and the foundation for his views as a strict separationist. Part II then examines Flowers's advocacy of the twice-defunct compelling state interest test3 and questions his support of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act4 with some of the key criticisms that have been made against it. Part III briefly examines the current status of the church-state debate in light of the Supreme Court's decision in City of Boerne v. Flores.5

II. APPROACHING THE CHURCH-STATE DEBATE

In his introduction, Flowers establishes that his goal in That Godless Court? is to educate the clergy and lay people on church-state issues through the Supreme Court's work in this area.6 His approach in achieving this goal is quite simple; he devotes the majority of his book to succinctly presenting the extensive historical background of the church-state debate. Keeping in mind that his intended audience is not legally trained, Flowers explains the structure of the federal court system as well as the process by which the Supreme Court determines the cases that it will review in the first chapter.7 He then explains the formation of the religion clauses in the First Amendment by reflecting on the development of religion in colonial America.8

At this point in his book, Flowers provides a chronological overview of numerous Supreme Court cases and decisions that have proven to be pertinent and have contributed to the current status of church-state issues in the United States.9 Flowers objectively provides this historical information and conscientiously distinguishes between the cases and decisions regarding the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause and those regarding its Establishment Clause. Not until the last chapter of his book does Flowers present his own perspectives regarding the ongoing church-state debate and provide any insight into the basis for his opinions.lo Perhaps because Flowers's work is geared toward the clergy and lay people, he falls short on substantive analysis and discussion of his position and rather long on historical narrative.

In the final chapter of the book, entitled "Flash Points and the Future," Flowers clearly establishes his position that "the maximum amount of religious liberty is consistent with the Constitution and best for religious groups and American life in general."11 His analysis encompasses four separate and very brief discussions.

First, he discusses the role that the Christian Right movement has played in the church-state debate and the impact that this group has had on that debate and in politics in general. …

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