Boundaries Dimly Perceived: Law, Religion, Education, and the Common Good

Boundaries Dimly Perceived: Law, Religion, Education, and the Common Good

Boundaries Dimly Perceived: Law, Religion, Education, and the Common Good

Boundaries Dimly Perceived: Law, Religion, Education, and the Common Good

Excerpt

"The fact is," said Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., in 1963, "that the line which separates the secular from the sectarian in American life is elusive.The difficulty of defining the boundary with precision inheres in a paradox central to our scheme of liberty. While our institutions reflect a firm conviction that we are a religious people, these institutions by solemn constitutional injunction may not officially involve religion in such a way as to prefer, discriminate against, or oppress, a particular sect or religion." Former Chief Justice Warren E. Burger recognized the problem again in 1971: "candor compels the acknowledgement that we can only dimly perceive the boundaries of permissible government activity in this sensitive area of constitutional adjudication."

These two comments reflect the problem as it was originally posed by the Founders: how to construct and maintain a secular federal government in an essentially religious society.Their constitutional answer has proved so elusive over the years precisely because it was premised upon the existence of a certain cultural scene that inevitably changed with the passage of time. For the Constitution was indeed the product of particular historical circumstances and very specific political polemics.While this fact may rule out a timeless meaning discoverable through textual exegesis, it also constitutes an unquestioned strength. "The genius of the Constitution," writes Justice Brennan, "rests not on any static meaning it might have had in a . . .

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